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Fearless Feedback for Software Teams

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Feedback builds trust, increases team cohesion, and helps individuals to improve their skills and grow in their craft. An effective feedback cycle is the best possible tool for improving team performance, argued Erika Carlson. With feedback, issues are addressed before they become toxic and mistakes can be course-corrected early.

Emily Page explained in Experimenting with Peer Feedback in Tech Teams what makes feedback important:

Firstly, it builds trust. It’s hard to give honest, constructive feedback without growing in trust. We believe that teams who trust each other will work more effectively, be more creative and solve problems in better ways. (...) Secondly, we believe that peer feedback is one of the best ways for individuals to improve their skills and grow in their craft.

In Applying Feedback Techniques Dan North mentioned why people provide feedback:

One reason is to improve the system of work, for instance when working in a team. Another reason is to model a culture of encouraging feedback, aiming to create a situation where feedback becomes acceptable.

Erika Carlson spoke about fearless feedback for software teams at Craft 2017. InfoQ is covering the conference with Q&As, summaries and articles.

InfoQ interviewed Carlson after her talk about giving and receiving feedback, using feedback to increase trust and openness and improve team performance, developing feedback skills, and how to deal with people who become annoyed or get angry when you give feedback.

InfoQ: Why do people find it hard to give and receive feedback?

Erika Carlson: Both giving and receiving feedback are skills, which take time and energy to develop. To begin with, most of us struggle with feedback because we simply haven’t taken time to build those skills. There’s more to it, though: effective feedback cycles require trust, openness, and vulnerability. These are elements many of us struggle with in personal relationships, let alone in our working lives.

InfoQ: What practices can teams use to increase trust and openness?

Carlson: The eventual goal is for feedback to happen organically, as the need arises, but it takes practice to get there. Teams can begin by creating structure to help team members practice their feedback skills; these structures can act as a scaffold to support the team as they build trust and openness. Team members can practice giving and receiving feedback through activities such as professionally-led training, roleplay exercises, structured peer feedback groups, individual coaching or mentoring, and team retrospective meetings.

InfoQ: How can feedback improve team performance?

Carlson: If a team can establish an effective feedback cycle, with team members who feel capable of giving and receiving feedback with one another in both structured and organic ways, they’ve built themselves the best possible tool for improving performance. Strong feedback loops mean that issues get addressed before they become toxic, challenges can be worked through as a team, and mistakes can be course-corrected in the early stages. Both positive and constructive feedback create opportunities for building team cohesion, increasing trust, and breaking down communication barriers and conflicts that negatively impact performance. I’ve worked with teammates who were barely on speaking terms with each other, let alone able to work collaboratively, and seen firsthand how the feedback process helped them come to understand each other’s thinking and figure out better ways to work together.

How can you increase the feedback capabilities in an organisation? This is what Emily Page suggested:

Start small, provide looks of encouragement and reassurance and, most importantly, practice. Practice yourself and create ways for others to practice in the least scary way possible.

InfoQ: How can you develop your feedback skills?

Carlson: I’ve got five mini-strategies for doing feedback better. The first is to learn to accept positive feedback graciously, without denying or minimizing. Simply say, "Thank you for the feedback." Following that, learn to accept constructive feedback without arguing, pushing back, or becoming defensive. Simply say, "Thank you for the feedback." Next, allow yourself to sit with constructive feedback until you feel less emotional about it; then decide if and how to act. The first three strategies are all about receiving feedback because I believe it’s important to focus on that piece first. It makes you more thoughtful and empathetic about giving feedback.

The fourth strategy is to be specific, thoughtful, and direct when giving feedback, whether positive or constructive, and to ask before giving unsolicited feedback. The final strategy applies to both giving and receiving feedback, and it is to always assume positive intent. When you give or receive feedback, give the other person the absolute benefit of the doubt: act from the assumption that their behavior is coming from a genuine, growth-oriented place.

North explained how people can effectively deliver feedback:

Feedback should be about actual behavior and it should be specific. Feedback is most often taken at a personal level, this is why people receiving feedback interpret it different from the person delivering feedback. E.g. "Your work is sloppy" becomes "You are a sloppy worker".

The most effective model for structuring feedback is Situation, Behavior, Impact (SBI). With this model you are giving feedback about observed behavior, together with the impact that the behavior has on you. The observed behavior should be factual, not judgmental, and you should describe how you feel.

InfoQ: Can you give an example of how specific, thoughtful, and direct feedback looks?

Carlson: When it’s positive, effective feedback often looks like this: "In the client presentation today, you did a really excellent job. You were thorough and hit all the important concepts, your energy was great and the people in the room were clearly engaged and came away with a solid understanding of our work so far. I particularly liked how you used the story about XYZ to drive home your point."

When it’s constructive, effective feedback often looks like this: "In our retro today, you interrupted and talked over me several times, and at one point when I was talking, you said "There’s not really a point in discussing this" and changed the subject. I felt frustrated and hurt."

Note that in both examples, the giver of feedback references the specific situation about which they are giving feedback, mentions the behaviors that are driving the feedback, and describes the impact of the feedback.

InfoQ: What if people become annoyed or get angry when you give feedback- how should you deal with that?

Carlson: Set yourself up for success with a couple of strategies: begin by asking yourself why you want to give feedback to this person. Is it for the purpose of their growth, and would it be to their benefit to hear the feedback? If so, ask if the person is willing to receive feedback about the specific situation (e.g., "Hey, would you be willing to hear some feedback on [situation/meeting/interaction]?"). If the person says no, ask if there’s a better time to talk about the issue. If the person agrees to listen to your feedback, make sure you’re in a reasonably private space: you don’t want their reaction to be compounded by embarrassment or feeling "called out" in front of others.

Deliver your feedback. You can minimize the potential for argument by focusing on facts instead of subjective judgments ("You interrupted me" vs. "You disrespected me") and behavior instead of character ("You kept rolling your eyes while XYZ was talking" vs. "You were being a jerk"). Make the negative impact of the behavior clear ("Because you didn’t deliver on time, we had to move the release date back, which is putting a strain on our relationship with the client.")

If the other person responds defensively and/or angrily, stay calm and neutral, and don’t get pulled into an argument. Stick to your message, repeat yourself if necessary, and if the situation is clearly deteriorating, end the interaction. Assuming you are approaching the other person with positive intentions for their growth, your responsibility is to deliver specific, thoughtful, direct feedback. Their reaction is their responsibility.

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