A Manager’s Guide to Giving Feedback to Interns

Let’s not beat around the bush: unless things are going exceptionally great, giving and receiving feedback can be pretty unpleasant. If you want to make things even harder, consider giving feedback to your youngest teammates, the ambitious, career-seeking interns. Here are some honest, hands-on tips on how not to get tangled in emotions and deliver an inspiring feedback.

Photo by Headway on Unsplash

It’s wise to first take a look at how other successful managers handle feedback. Take Steve Jobs, for example.

He was a real jerk sometimes.

When it came to criticizing his employees, he was absolutely cruel. He said what was on his mind, sometimes leaving people in tears. There was even a moment when he fired one of his team leaders in a public meeting, in front of his colleagues.

In an interview for the New Yorker, Sir Jonathan Ive, Apple’s head of design and Steve Jobs’ long-time friend, talked about Steve’s unorthodox approach. He said he once asked him to take it down a notch after seeing his colleagues terrified and crushed. Jobs disagreed.

“Why would you be vague? You don’t care about how they feel! You’re being vain, you want them to like you. – Steve Jobs

Feedback is good, but can we serve it so cold?

Did Jobs’ approach work? No doubt about it! Even the people who hated him for his attitude, ended up loving him and the feeling of success they had around him.

At the same time, I’m sure this is not the right way to give feedback to people who are just starting their career. But Jobs was right about one thing: the best feedback is an honest feedback. How can we make sure we’re pointing our interns in the right direction if we’re not being honest to them? There’s no way they will ever learn anything if they leave believing they’ve done everything perfectly.

So let’s start from here: let’s talk about how to give honest feedback without ignoring that we all have a sensitive side.

A few things you should know about your interns

I think at this point it’s safe to assume that your interns are in their early twenties, fresh out of college or in their senior year. In a nutshell, they’re Millennials, and that means they are unlike any other generation before them. First and foremost, they are the first digital-native generation and that shapes a lot of their habits and views of the world.

If we were to describe their entire complexity in just three main features, we could say that:

  • They are at the beginning of their career so they are probably making a lot of mistakes (which is good, but it means you have to give a lot of slightly negative feedback).
  • They are ambitious and career-focused.
  • They need constant feedback.

Recommended reading: Interesting Stats About Millennials Every Manager Should Know

7-step guide to delivering feedback like a true leader

While working on this guide, I looked over the results of the TriNet Perform Survey**. The main goal of this study was to understand how “traditional” performance reviews affect Millennials. As it turns out, the old model of feedback is driving away this new generation who feels mistreated, anxious and in need of change.

As organizations, we definitely need a plan to approach feedback differently. So I thought I’d start from what Millennials dislike about the status-quo, as revealed by the TriNet study, and build a solution around that.

1. Be honest and authentic

74% of Millennials frequently feel “in the dark” about how their managers and peers think they’re performing at work. Try to make sure your communication is straightforward and frequent, so that your interns feel guided along every step of the way. Forget about the final review and focus on delivering feedback every time you see a situation that needs to be discussed.

2. Remember, you’re most probably influencing their career decisions

When I say “be honest and authentic”, I mean you should do that in a way that doesn’t include expressing all your feelings and anxieties. Take a moment to look at the bigger picture before you deliver “constructive criticism”. Your opinion is valued and you can influence their self-esteem or even their career choices, such as staying with the company after the internship is over or not.

Of all the 1000 Millennials interviewed in the United States, nearly half (47%) feel that receiving a performance review makes them feel like they can’t do anything right. Make sure your interns won’t feel the same by the end of their internship.

3. Have a dialog, not a monolog

32% dislike when reviews don’t allow employees to share thoughts on their own performance, so make sure your conversation is a two-way street. Keep that in mind especially when you have to talk to an under-performer. A dialog can bring to light a workflow issue that you can solve to increase the productivity of your entire team.

4. Focus on facts, not emotions

A third of the Millennials interviewed (31%) feel their feedback is biased or unfair. To avoid that situation, focus your conversation on facts. Before you initiate the dialog, make sure you know exactly what actions and results you want to discuss. This way, your interns will be more able to open up and collaborate.

5. Let them come up with a solution

If you want to change a negative behavior, make sure your interns are part of the solution. No matter how brilliant, your idea will always feel imposed, so try to challenge them to find a way to turn the situation around.

6. Don’t wait for the end of the summer

As unorthodox as it may sound, feedback meetings are outdated. In our fast-paced digital world, especially when you’re working with feedback-avid Millennials, you need to always be ready to give feedback.

You may think that we talk from a startup’s perspective, but we’re not the only company who believes in the “power of now” when it comes to feedback. Enterprise-level companies are also getting rid of their “traditional” annual feedback.

7. Use instant communication technology

Make sure that you are delivering feedback when it’s needed, not days, weeks, or months later. Most importantly, use IM to do that cause it’s the most instant of them all. Although “traditionally”, feedback is given in a face-to-face meeting, we’re not talking here about old-school managers. In fact:

41% of Millennials say they prefer to communicate electronically at work than face to face, or even over the telephone.

Although it feels like “breaking the rules”, by not scheduling a meeting with each and every intern, remember other things count more: how often you communicate with them, how clear your message is. Try to balance a recurring weekly meeting with frequent conversations over chat.

This summer we welcomed 14 interns and they joined various teams, from frontend to backend and QA. They have regular team meetings, but for one-to-one discussions, their managers rely on Hubgets. This way everybody saves valuable time and keeps the communication flowing. Our interns feel they have support from their managers and are aware of their performance.

Recommended readingWhat Ancient China Can Teach Us About Onboarding New Employees

Remember – repeat, repeat, repeat

Great interns take their work very seriously, but they are also very sensitive and vulnerable to feedback.

If you want to retain them for a permanent position in your team, make sure you provide help for them on a regular basis. It may require you adjust your schedule to always have time for short feedback sessions, but take it from us: it will be worth it.

**About the TriNet Perform Survey

The TriNet Perform Survey was conducted by Wakefield Research among 1,000 U.S. fulltime employees born after 1980 between September 4 –15, 2015, using an email invitation and an online survey. This survey has a margin of error of +/- 3.1 percentage points.

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