Supercharge Your Team with Effective Feedback

This is part three of a three-part series on high performing teams. I recommend you start with the first two parts.

Part One: Design the Team You Need to Succeed

Part Two: Designing a High Performing Team

Reminder: we’re working with this model for team design.

Stage 2: Perform. Maintaining, Tuning and Growing your Team’s Ability

When a team forms, the group actively designs how they’ll work together. It’s the first step toward making a high performing team. In Stage 2, perform, they realize the team’s potential through continuous feedback and iteration.

A goal without a plan is a wish.

Goal Progress: How can you make sure you live your goals every day? Try using OKRs via the Radical Focus approach. Every week the teams review their progress toward their goals, and team members publicly commit to what they plan to do to realize that goal. I’ve written about creating a cadence of commitmentother people have written it too… so let’s skip to making sure people are fulfilling their roles.

It takes a tricky thing teams rarely get right: feedback.

Teams need two kinds of feedback to grow: member and group. Unfortunately most businesses provide a different two kinds of feedback: annual reviews and interventions. Because both of these tend toward the traumatic, employees become conditioned to avoid feedback.

Theoretically, the annual review is a moment for contemplation and thorough examination of your performance. In my life, it’s done sloppily because managers are not given extra time to do it correctly (it lands on top of your already overstuffed schedule), it reflects only the last few months of performance, the employee gets more information than they can process so they tend to obsess over whatever upsets them the most, and it’s forgotten in a few weeks. And that’s the best case scenario: at one company I worked at reviews — with a forced curve — were so upsetting that I knew I’d lose a month of productivity after.

Shortening the cycle helps.

Another company I worked at did quarterly reviews. All quarters you had a review with your boss, and any quarter was one in which you could get a raise/bonus etc. This small tweak

  • reduced the amount of feedback (making feedback actionable)
  • reduced the gap between action and evaluation (making feedback memorable)
  • reduced the stakes (allowing employees to focus on the feedback, knowing it was just another 3 months before they could try to improve their lot.)

Seeing the difference in shorter performance review cycles led me to teach teams the habit of short-cycle feedback. i.e. give feedback to any member within 24 hours of seeing a need for change.

As they say on the New York subway, if you see something, say something.

Waiting too long after seeing upsetting behavior causes resentment in the person affected. It also allows the actor to believe their behavior was acceptable.

On the other hand, you don’t want to act without any thought. You need to make sure you’ve assumed the right state of mind to give good feedback, so it can be heard and accepted.

A Mindset for Giving Great Feedback

When people engage in a behavior that upsets us, we often attribute intention. “They don’t care,” “They’re selfish” “What a privileged asshole.” But intention is unknowable. Only through feedback and conversation can we create a common understanding that leads to better cooperation.

The prompt to give feedback is usually emotion in reaction to someone’s behavior. That emotion can be anger, frustration, resentment. People feeling strong feelings often vent or repress. You cannot do either, for the sake of your team.

This is the hard part. You have to transform your negative emotion into curiosity.

I feel angry. Why?

What triggered the anger?

What are the stories I’m telling myself about my anger?

What other stories explain this trigger? Is the behavior appropriate in another context? Could it be personal? Have I seen this before, or is it atypical? Is this the individual, or is this how our culture asks us to behave.

The next step is to try to put the behavior into context via compassion.


Everybody has an internalized idea of appropriate behavior. It comes from multiple factors, from geography to family to corporate culture. When people grew up in one place, got jobs, and worked for one company for most of your life, there was very little cultural tension. Your family played by the same rules as your country and your company.

But now companies are global. Team struggle when members work together but play by different rules. When you seen a behavior you think is inappropriate, examine it for cultural context or risk a painful misunderstanding.

At Yahoo, we had a culture of passive-aggressiveness. At Zynga we had a culture of aggressive-aggressiveness. I grew up in Iowa, which is a mix of high context and low (because of it’s Dutch-English mix). My family, however, were very non-confrontational. You can image which company I found easier to navigate.

From curiosity, move through sympathy, empathy and compassion. Sympathy allows you see they have a different experience, empathy allows you feel their struggle as well as your own. Compassion is empathy with an action item. Compassion gives you the right posture to communicate feedback. When you move from wanting to give feedback because you’re hurt to wanting to give feedback to help them be more successful, then you are ready to shape your message.

Structuring Effective Feedback

Matt Abraham’s four i’s is a pretty good model for structuring feedback.

If you don’t want to watch the video, his steps are:

  • Information — what is the behavior I observed that is not working for me
  • Importance — why is it problematic
  • Invitation to change — a nice way to say “I’d like you to cut that out.”
  • Implications — if you don’t, this is the results I expect will happen, from not being to work together to firing.

I shorten this to simple sentences like, “You’ve turned in your designs late three times now, and this means I don’t have time to code properly, or I have to stay up all night working and my husband gets mad at me. How can we change this? Otherwise, I’m not sure I can continue to collaborate with you.”

The touchy-feely approach works, but you have to modify messaging to match your company and team language. But no matter what, keep feedback about the behavior and not the person nor the intentions. Delivering late can be called out as bullshit nonsense, but never call the person a jerk nor assert “you don’t give a shit about my life.” Stick with what is knowable by both parties: this fact did happen and you did not much care for it. People get upset if you judge them as a person, or ascribe intent. They know you are making stuff up about them, even if you are right.

Stay with what you both know: this happened.

Stage 3: Adjourning (or Reflection)

(1) You first need to get your team to Commit to goals, roles, and norms. (2) You need to regularly  Check alignment with these commitments. 3) Finally, you need to Close the gap between saying and doing.
— Committed Teams

Agile, Lean and the medical profession respect the important of stepping out of the fray and asking “how would be do it differently, knowing what we know now? Call it a retrospective or a post-mortem or whatever you want, but do it.

A rhythm for reflection during performing is daily/weekly. But once a quarter (or six months, or a year, or at the end of a long project) it’s critical to move from examining the trees to taking a look at the forest. Adjourn, reflect, and start anew with your learnings.

  1. OKRs get graded.
  2. Individuals do performance reviews. Performance reviews are based on three things: how well is the individual living up to their goals, role expectation and team norms. This clearly deserves an article of its own.
  3. Teams can give each other feedback.
  4. Norms can be evolved. Bring out your rules, and ask folks if they are living up to their own standards. Discuss changes. Make updates.

Design Your Team, or Accept What Shows Up

There is an old saying, when you assume you make an ass out of you and me. With teams, if you assume shared understanding, you invite conflict and under-performance. Instead of spending time innovating and executing, you’ll spend it arguing and undermining.

  • Take a chunk of time up front to design who you want to be.
  • Set aside a tiny bit of time each week to tune how your progress toward those goals.
  • Protect the time at regular intervals to evaluate your progress.

This “extra work” will end up saving time in miscommunication and arguments as well as making happier and more product workplaces.

Design the team you want to be part of. Design the team you need to success. Design the life you want to live every day.