Creating a feedback culture in your team

December 19, 2017
8 min read
Creating a feedback culture in your team header image

Feedback is such a useful thing to give and receive, yet we often miss the day to day opportunities to do it. Often, we rely on our team leaders to provide us with feedback about how we're going, what we can improve on, etc. Sometimes this may happen every week or two as part of a one on one catch, or it may only happen once a year as part of an annual performance review. Timeliness is everything when it comes to feedback; the closer in time to the event or behaviour the feedback is for, the more effectively actions can be made on it.

The good, the bad and the ugly

Our team had just been told that we'll be running a group feedback session. This would involve each team member writing up two positive and two negative feedback bullet points for everyone else in the team. Nervous laughs were heard all around.

Each of us got to work jotting down a persons name at the top of a post-it note, followed by two + and two - bullet point markers. We then got to work on filling in the blanks. We were all careful to keep our notes away from prying eyes; all the time aware that they will soon be put up for public display.

Game time. Up they went, each post-it note stuck on to a glass wall for all to bare witness to. Then, silence. Everyone was scouring the wall for their names and quietly digesting the content that lay underneath. It quickly became evident that there were a lot more '+' items then '-'. It turns out, we didn't seem to like the idea of giving negative feedback to our peers. Well, when I say "we didn't seem to like", what I mean to say is, "the rest of the team didn't seem to like". I'd followed through and put up two negative points for each person. My chances for "favourite team member of the year" award weren't looking so promising.

We proceeded to read through each of the points and get clarification on any that weren't clear. When reading out the negatives I'd given for one of my team mates, he turned to me and said, "you gave me the dash!?". With the tension broken a little bit, we continued on. Some of the points were useful, others were vague and based on feelings, and some just seemed misplaced. After we were done, we all agreed as a group never to do this again, and went back to doing real work.

Why is feedback from your peers useful?

Our usual feedback provider, the team leader, isn't usually the one that works closely with you day in, day out. They have some level of visibility about how you work, often gained by short times working directly with you along with whatever they may have told to them by your colleagues. Your direct peers, those you work with every day, have a much closer perspective on how you work. They can often identify more clearly those things that you do well at and the other stuff that you could improve upon.

"You really know a lot about docker, you should run a session with our team to help up skill us."

"During daily stand-ups, you have a tendency to go in to lots of detail about your tasks, which leads to the meeting taking longer. It'd be great if you could instead give a brief summary of what you're up to, and hold off on the details for those interested until after the meeting is over."

"Pants off Friday is not a thing. Please put some pants on."

So what went wrong during our group feedback session?

The intent behind the group feedback session was to help start a feedback movement within the team; a noble goal. But, there were some problems that lead to it not playing out as hoped. Running it as a public gallery lead to everyone feeling uncomfortable, both with everyone reading feedback about them, as well as everyone reading personal feedback they'd given to others. This then meant that the group wasn't in the right state of mind to give and receive quality feedback, especially the negative feedback.

At this stage, we hadn't yet discussed what makes feedback good. This meant that a lot of the notes up on the wall were too general, spoke about feelings, weren't actionable and used poor language. So not only were we receiving feedback from our peers for the first time, we were also receiving it in a way that meant it was hard to do anything meaningful with.

Speed feedbacking

The team was slowly coming around to the idea that feedback from peers was useful. So, we decided to give a variation of speed dating a go. Speed feedbacking.

It was 3 PM, time for our first speed feedbacking session. Tables with our names were drawn up, hard time limits were agreed upon, beers were involved. There was a bit of uneasiness in the air, nervous excitement even, but we pushed forward. We looked down at the hand drawn table of names, paired up with someone in our row, and sat down somewhere together. Some nervous laughter was heard, and then we began.

I start to share my feedback for my partner, who nods, takes notes and asks me to clarify things when I'm not clear. I then hand the microphone over to them, and they begin to nervously tell me a few positive pieces of feedback. Positive feedback is great and all, but what I really wanted to hear about was where I could improve. "Lay it on me", I say, "Let's hear about something I'm not so great at". A nervous pause as they contemplate their response. "You shield the team from a lot of external pressure. It'd be useful for us to see some of that pressure so we can better tailor how we work to suit the situation." Wow! This was great, I hadn't even considered this as something to think about before. It was at this point an obnoxiously loud alarm went off, signifying that our 2 minutes was up, and it was time for us to switch partners.

After everyone had given and received feedback from everyone else, we were done. Laughs and smiles all around. Success!

So why did speed feedbacking work?

The speed feedbacking session had a few good things going for it that meant it worked for our team:

  • It was face to face, so anything that was unclear could be clarified then and there
  • It was one on one, so it didn't feel as though an entire team of your peers were 'judging' you
  • It was short (only 2 minutes per pair!), so we only had time to cover the most important feedback and not get stuck talking about little things
  • We each had a better understanding of what good feedback looks like and how to give it

So what does good feedback look like?

Think about the most useful feedback you've ever received. It may have been from a team leader, a friend, or even a work peer. You'll probably see that it had one or more of these attributes:

  • It was specific, not vague or general
  • It was based on facts, not feelings
  • It was timely, while the thoughts were still fresh
  • It was linked to a goal, to help give context as to why the feedback was being given
  • It was actionable

Making it work for your team

Each team is different. So the way you incorporate feedback in to your team will likely be different to the way another team may do it. Speed feedbacking worked well for us, but it may not be right for you.

So how do you figure out what to do? Take a page out of the Lean world and "build, measure, learn". Try something out, look at how it went, adjust what you did to be more suitable, and repeat. Chances are you won't get it perfect the first time around, and that's expected! Keep at it and you'll soon land on something that works for you. Just make sure to involve the team in the entire process. Don't spring a feedback session on an unsuspecting and unprepared team, unless you enjoy awkward silences and talks of mutiny.

Good, quality feedback is one of the best ways to improve yourself and those around you. It'll lead to higher performing teams that are better aligned and happier for it. So get out there and start a feedback revolution!

Got some feedback about this article? I'd love to hear it! Even if you have to "give me the dash".