Feedback: How Teams Learn, Fast

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Feedback: How Teams Learn, Fast


Francis Briers, Senior Consultant with DPA Consulting, experts in leadership, strategy, and innovation, takes a dive into ways teams can learn fast for 2018.

If you want to be a high-performing team, learning and improving is critical, but doing that in the moment, skillfully, without dedicating huge amounts of time to ‘relationship conversations’ is hard. This article offers some time-efficient ways which have been very successful in driving improvement and increasing connection in teams.

Most people I work with find feedback, to some degree, uncomfortable to deliver but perhaps especially so in technical teams.

Some of this discomfort around feedback is a matter of definition. In most organizations, “feedback” is the same as “complaint” because it has come to mean me telling you I am not happy about something you have done. Is it any wonder that so many of us feel uncomfortable delivering it and feel an inner groan when someone says they have some for us?

I would say that feedback should be information that helps you learn and grow. As such, if I have a complaint, while there might be information in there you can learn from, it is not feedback. There is an important conversation which we all need to be brave enough to have but it is a separate issue to feedback and will ‘poison the well’ if the two are seen as the same thing.

You may have spotted that by this definition of feedback, it should be just as likely we receive appreciative feedback as formative feedback (and yes, I am being careful not to say ‘positive and negative’ because if it is all intended to help me learn and grow, it should all be basically positive!).

In fact, there are various researchers who have looked at what the ratio of appreciative to formative feedback is that we need to hear in order to feel psychologically buoyant. The average usually comes out around 5:1 or 6:1. Even in the organizations studied with the lowest ratios, it was 2:1. And yet, I’d be very surprised if many of us receive that kind of proportion of appreciative feedback.

Another reason I think appreciative feedback is so important is that feedback is like a bank account. Every time I give you formative feedback, I draw on our relational capital. Every time I give you appreciative feedback, I invest in our relationship. It is not quite that transactional, of course, but it is a fair metaphor.

We need to invest equally in appreciation. We need to be just as careful in giving it and just as attentive in coming up with concrete examples and helping people to understand the impact of their positive behavior. We need to apply the same principles to appreciation in terms of care and rigor as we would with complex and difficult feedback.

To get to the practical tool, I have found a simple structure which seems to enable people to give each other useful, balanced (appreciative and formative) feedback in a time-efficient way. If you do this regularly as a practice, then you will build a body of useful feedback for every team member. This also builds trust in the team as well as skill and comfort in giving feedback. Start with a couple of sentence stems:

  • What I appreciate about you is…. because the impact for me is….
  • What would make it even easier for me to work with you is… because the impact for me would be…

As long as people enter it with positive intent and the desire to help others learn and grow, then I find most of us can give and receive valuable feedback with grace. This creates a positive relationship outcome. With just a little practice you can take five minutes per pair, where you both take a minute to reflect on what feedback you have for the other person, then take two minutes each to give your feedback. In just over a quarter of an hour, each person can work with three partners. In a small team, you can get around to everyone in the team on a regular basis even if you just do it once a month. If you are working in an Agile team then you can make it part of your retrospectives however frequently feels helpful.

What I have seen is that over time and with practice, the feedback deepens even when speaking briefly. Feedback becomes a habit enabling better relationships, better performing teams, and better work.