How to give and receive feedback in an agile organization

Feedback is an essential ingredient for improvement and growth. In an agile organization, this works differently than a yearly performance appraisal by a supervisor. With cross-functional teams, your supervisor (if you even have such a thing) is either (a) not on your team and hence doesn’t work with you on a daily basis or (b) has a different expertise than you do and hence has limited understanding about your professional growth.

What is the goal of feedback?

The goal of giving someone feedback is to help that person with personal growth. It needs to be valuable and relevant to them. Ideally, uncovering blind spots which that person didn’t see before. It’s about them. Not you.

According to Roger Fisher and Alan Sharp there are at least three different kinds of feedback:

  • Appreciation is the expression of gratitude or approval of another’s effort. It is an expression of emotion, designed to meet an emotional need.
  • Advice (or coaching) consists of suggestions about a particular behavior that should be repeated or changed. It focuses on the performance, rather than judging the person.
  • Evaluation is ranking the subject’s performance in relation to that of others or against an explicit or implicit set of standards.

The emotional impact of being graded tends to drown out the advice on improving performance. Most times, evaluation is the one that is least likely to be helpful, and most likely to distract from your other two purposes. So, it’s best to separate pay raise discussions (evaluation) from feedback.

How do you give good feedback?

Check your intentions. Feedback is information intended to help others learn and grow. Blowback is information used to wound. If someone has let you down or performed poorly, and you’re feeling resentful or angry — deal with your own emotions before attempting to engage in a dialogue. When you feel a genuine concern for the growth and development of the other person, you’re ready to talk — and not a moment sooner.

Focus on behavior, not the person. Focus criticism on the situation you want to address, on what someone does or says, rather than the individual themselves. This separates the problematic situation from the person’s identity, allowing them to focus on what you’re saying without feeling personally confronted.

Don’t be detached, try to connect Speak in “I” language, to share how you have been inspired, touched, puzzled, hurt, frustrated, or angered as a result of what the other person has said or done. Use nonviolent communication.

Be specific. As specific as possible. Use examples from the recent past. Vague statements are easier to make but not actionable, and hence not helping the other person to improve and grow.

How do you receive feedback well?

Get ready before asking for feedback. Never invite feedback until you are ready for it. “Ready” means that you want to hear the truth, not simply validation. If after receiving feedback you feel defensive, it might be that you were looking for approval, not feedback.

Be curious, not defensive. When receiving feedback, it is tempting to become defensive or “explain away” the criticism. Intentionally resist this natural reflex. Do not debate or try to explain your behavior. Instead, let the other person finish completely and try to listen deeply. Then ask questions with the intent of inquiry. Request examples. Stay curious until — even if you don’t completely agree — you can see how a reasonable, rational decent person would think what they think. Later, you can decide what you agree or disagree with, but for now, your goal is simply to learn. Reflect thoughtfully on what you’ve heard.

Cultivate a growth mindset. Understand mistakes and feedback as opportunities to grow, rather than personal failures. Criticism is not an attack on you as a person. It is about something you did. You can’t change who you are, but you can change what you do.

When does feedback happen?

If you have feedback for someone, don’t wait: give it to them right away. Nevertheless, it is helpful to have time cut out for deliberate reflection. Otherwise, it’s too easy to get lost in the daily grind and not take the time to seek out or give feedback.

Where does feedback come from?

If feedback doesn’t (solely) come from your supervisor, where does it come from then? It comes from the people around you. Who is best equipped to give you feedback is highly situational, but usually involves people from diverse areas. Let’s call these people your peers. Peer feedback has the following advantages:

  • peers (not just your supervisor) have valuable and meaningful feedback
  • feedback by peers provides a broader perspective of your contribution
  • feedback from peers encourages teamwork and builds trust
  • separation from pay raise decisions enables giving and receiving feedback in an open and non-judgmental way
  • make re-selection of peers a natural part of the process
  • don’t do anonymous feedback, because of high risk of blowbacks and frustration
  • instead, create an environment where open and honest feedback is possible

How does this peer group thing work anyway?

Pick 3 people, and invite them to be in your peer group. 4 people (3 peers + you) is still a small enough group to allow for an effective group discussion and it’s a good tradeoff between broad vs. deep feedback. Arrange a 1 or 2-hour group session with them — pick a quiet space with a good atmosphere.

Clarify what kind of feedback you are looking for right now and give your peers a set of guiding questions that you would like to discuss. Then before the meeting, you and your peers reflect on the guiding questions by setting yourself a 30-minute timebox. Take some notes to bring.

Meet as a group — in person, if possible. Everyone shares their notes on the guiding questions — focus on behavior, not the person. You may do this in a round-robin per question. Or let each person talk about all their notes. Or don’t focus too much on the questions at all and just have a discussion. The best discussion format for you depends on your preferences for structure. Whatever the structure, be curious, not defensive. Take some notes. At the end, thank your peers for their feedback.

After the meeting, don’t rush back to your desk right away. Take a few minutes to reflect on the feedback. Maybe jot down some ideas for changes or experiments. The received feedback is yours and yours alone, you decide what to do with it. There is no obligation to share with anyone.

How do you pick your peer group?

Who are the people that can give you the feedback that will help you grow? Generally, this could be anyone. A member of your team, someone you worked with closely lately from another team, a client, or someone else. Be honest to yourself about why you pick someone. Don’t pick someone because you expect to hear nice things about yourself. This is not about stroking your ego. It won’t help you grow.

Try to pick a diverse group in order to get a broad perspective. For instance different roles, personalities, gender, teams, how long they’ve been with the company etc. Pick at least one person outside your team to get an “outside view”. Don’t be stuck in your team bubble.

It’s up to you to cultivate trust with your peer group to get to the point where they feel safe enough to give you honest criticism. Giving meaningful feedback is hard for people because they don’t want to hurt your feelings. It’s your job to assure them that you are ready to receive it. Only you can do this. No-one else can do this for you.

How do you invite people to be in your peer group?

Ask them personally or write them an email. Something like this maybe.

Hi,

I would very much value your feedback. Please let me know, if you want to be in my peer group. If you do, please take 30 minutes to reflect on the following guiding questions about me and take some notes to bring to our group session.

insert your favorite set of guiding questions here (see below)

insert what kind of feedback you are looking for here (see below)

I will find a suitable time and send you an invite once I gathered my entire peer group.

Thank you, me

Most people appreciate knowing well ahead of time that you would like them in your peer group. The earlier you let them know, the better.

Which guiding questions should I ask?

You may pick a set of guiding questions that other companies use from the examples below. You can also mix and match or invent your own. Which questions work best for you also depends on what kind of feedback you are looking for.

  • I am particularly good at…
  • My work is particularly easy for me when… / It is particularly easy to work with you when…
  • What I have achieved over the past year is…
  • My work is hard for me when… / It is hard to work with you when…
  • As areas of development, I see…
  • Over the course of the next year, I would like to improve in the following areas…
  • I would like to place a particular focus on…
  • What will my contribution to my development be?
  • What could the organization’s contribution to my development be?
  • What or who could provide additional support?

  • What are my strengths? When and how do I show these strengths?
  • What is my potential? Is there a side of me that I should develop further?
  • Describe a situation where I could have acted differently. What could I have done instead?
  • Am I doing something that irritates you that I might not be aware of?
  • Is there some behavior I should stop or change?

  • If you had to make two suggestions for improving my work, what would they be?
  • How could I handle my projects more effectively?
  • What could I do to make your job easier?
  • How could I do a better job of following through on commitments?
  • If you were in my position, what would you do to show people more appreciation?
  • When do I need to involve other people in my decisions?
  • How could I do a better job of prioritizing my activities?

  • What behavior can I be proud of?
  • What achievement can I be proud of?
  • What behavior could I improve?
  • What achievement could I improve?
  • How well am I doing in terms of impact?
  • How well am I doing in terms of culture?

  • What behavior should I start?
  • What behavior should I stop?
  • What behavior should I continue?

  • What do I truly long to do?
  • Where do you see yourself going?
  • What are my unique gifts?
  • What holds me back?
  • What has gone really well this quarter that we might celebrate?
  • What did I learn?
  • What didn’t go as well or might have been done differently?

  • What am I most excited about in this next quarter?
  • What concerns me most?
  • What changes, if any, would I suggest in my role?
  • What ongoing professional development will help me to grow in my current role and in the future?
  • How can the organization help me to grow?
  • What would make me more valuable for my team / the organization?

  • Keeps: What am I doing well?
  • Ideas: Where can I grow?
  • Highlights: What makes me great and unique?

What kind of feedback are you looking for?

You should clarify this with your peer group before your feedback session so they can prepare accordingly.

“I need direct feedback. If you give me subtle suggestions, I won’t get it.” vs. “I find too direct feedback very harsh and hurtful.”

“I need an evaluation of my performance on a particular project or task.” vs. “I need general coaching about how I — as a person — can improve and learn.”

“I need more input on how to develop my strengths.” vs. “I need someone to challenge me.”

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