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Three ways to improve the feedback you give

Good feedback between team members fosters confidence, audacity, creativity and self-reflection. As a team leader, it’s your job to give feedback — and lots of it. Here are three tips I picked up last year for giving better feedback.

1. Be optimistic

First, make the feedback optimistic. The optimism does not come from being positive or negative, but from what you comment on, and in what way. When you’re giving optimistic positive feedback, you make it personal, general and permanent. When you’re giving optimistic critical feedback, you make it impersonal, specific and temporary.

For example, you could compliment your co-worker like so:

The principles of flow helped us deliver on budget last week.

That’s hardly personal feedback: it’s impersonal, specific and temporary. It does not acknowledge anything about the other person’s contribution. Compare to this alternative:

John, your ability to prioritise has always been key in how this team delivers software.

After hearing this, John will probably feel pretty chuffed! A note of caution, though: make sure to have specific examples prepared. Too much “you are awesome” feedback could make people afraid to make mistakes; see Mindset by Carol Dweck.

When offering critical feedback, take the reverse approach. Compare this feedback:

Terry, we can never get any work done, because as a real slacker, you are always in our way.

This would probably not go down well. By being personal, general and permanent, you are making it clear there is absolutely no hope for this person. Compare this to the following:

Graham, your being late this morning made it hard for the team to properly plan for the day.

This is very actionable feedback that explains how a specific action affected the team. By phrasing it in terms of a specific action in a specific situation, you set a clear expectation of and trust in improvement.

I got this tip from Reginald Braithwaite’s Optimism talk at Nordic Ruby 2016 in Stockholm.

2. Make a sandwich

Different relationships call for different styles of feedback. You can’t just walk in on your first day on the job and start explaining to your team all the ways in which they’re wrong. Instead, consider the level trust in your relationship with the other person:

  1. When you just got to know each other, or when you’re just getting started in a leadership role, the level of trust in your relationship might be low. Use the porpoise method of giving feedback: to make a porpoise perform a trick, reinforce all desired behaviour with rewards (i.e. positive feedback) for doing the right thing — and ignore everything else. Trust that the bad behaviour will sort itself out at some point in the future.
  2. When you’ve built up a basic level of trust, continue to the sandwich model of feedback. You are probably familiar with this method: first offer some positive feedback, then gently introduce some critical feedback, and end on a high note with some more positive feedback. This is important because, usually, negative feedback has a much bigger impact on people than positive feedback has. To avoid making the other person insecure, uncomfortable or demotivated, you need to balance your critical notes with plenty of positivity.
  3. Finally, when you have built a trusting relationship with someone, you can move on to the Atkins model of feedback, which comes down to the “sandwich model without the bread”: jump straight into the critical feedback. This requires mutual understanding, respect and perceived safety for interpersonal risk taking. If you’re wondering whether you are ready for this stage yet, you probably aren’t.

I got this tip from Dan North in his talk How to make a sandwich at The Lead Developer 2016.

3. Have a frame of reference

When it comes to critical feedback, it can be useful to describe how the other person’s behaviour affected you. This is central to nonviolent communication. This is solid advice, but as a team leader, you sometimes have to give feedback that has no real impact on you, personally. In that case, you need to relate it to something else.

Especially critical feedback should relate the other person’s behaviour to the company’s purpose, his/her role’s accountabilities, and the company’s core values. For example, using core values:

Eric, you made a sarcastic comment toward John today. This is not in accordance with our core values of mutual respect and balance of opinions.

Or job accountabilities:

Carol, in your job you are responsible for keeping the customer informed of project progress and budgets. By letting the project go over budget without telling the customer, you did not live up to this responsibility.

Using such clearly defined expectations and values makes the feedback about something bigger than merely “your opinion” — instead, it alsmost automatically becomes a collaborative effort of improvement.

This does require you to have clear and explicit purposes, accountabilities and values set up in the first place, and to have agreed on them together up front. If you don’t have that yet, start now and write some things down. Don’t worry, you don’t need to get it right the first time. Oftentimes, you’ll find that expectations weren’t actually as clear as you thought, or were merely assumed. Take that chance to improve and adapt. I have found that connecting feedback to explicit expectations like these are a great way to iterate on and improve your shared team culture.

I got this tip from Karolina Jackson-Ward in her talk Great leaders create great value at Lean Kanban Benelux 2016.

Arjan van der Gaag

Arjan van der Gaag

A thirtysomething software developer, historian and all-round geek. This is his blog about Ruby, Rails, Javascript, Git, CSS, software and the web. Back to all talks and articles?

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