Building a Team Through Feedback

The ability to give honest, effective feedback to someone is important. Equally important is the ability to hear and understand that feedback. Learn how to use good feedback to build a stronger team.

If you walk through a high-performing agile team space, you'll hear a buzz about the product:

“Do you see this?”

"Bump that."

"Ah ha!"

"Tell me more about what you want."

“But that is part of the acceptance criteria.”

"We should do it this way."

What you won't hear is just as telling, especially on a not-so-high-performing team. Sometimes, you have to see the sideways glances and grimaces to know that things are not working well interpersonally. And, if things are not working well between people, then they also will not work well in the product. Conway’s Law (paraphrased: "The product architecture reflects the team's architecture") proves that.

In traditional team cultures, feedback has been the sole responsibility of the manager. On agile teams, it's more important for feedback to be peer to peer, because the manager doesn’t know the minute-by-minute details of what's going on within the team.

What if it were not only the sole responsibility of managers but also of the team itself to provide guidance for an individual's growth? Building feedback into the culture creates a team with members who have a stronger sense of responsibility for one another. They will self-correct interpersonal and work-quality issues better and faster than a traditional team.

A Peer-to-peer Model of Feedback

In order to provide each other feedback, the first thing you need is a peer-to-peer model of feedback. This is the one we like from Behind Closed Doors: Secrets of Great Management by Johanna Rothman and Esther Derby:

  • Create an opening to deliver feedback.
  • Describe the behavior or result in a way that the person can hear.
  • State the impact using "I" language.
  • Make a request for changed behavior.

This model is useful for providing change-focused feedback as well as feedback that reinforces positive behaviors.

What About Performance Reviews?

What about performance reviews for helping people to receive feedback about their behavior? Might that not be enough? We have ample evidence that says once-yearly performance reviews don't work. (See the further reading below.) We don't need manager-led performance management or formal performance management. We need in-the-moment feedback, so that people know if they are breaking the build, picking their noses, or doing something else that drives their colleagues crazy.

We don't need formality in an agile environment. We need just a little bit of tooling, such as a way to provide each other direct, reinforcing, and change-focused feedback about things that work and don't work so we know if should continue or change what we are doing.

Feedback That Builds a Team

First, let's discuss what feedback looks like. You've seen interactions that tear a team apart. People label each other. They say things such as "You always do that," "You never do that," or "What were you thinking?” None of those is helpful.

Instead, imagine the following scenario.

Jimmy normally leaves at 4 pm so that he has a slightly longer weekend during the summer—an agreement he has made with the team. Lauren has noticed that, on the past two Fridays, Jimmy has checked in code at 3:45 pm that has broken the build, and then Jimmy has disappeared. Lauren wants to make sure this does not happen again and catches Jimmy on Friday at 2 pm.

"Do you have a minute?" Lauren says.

"I'm trying to finish this story before I leave. Can it wait until Monday?” Jimmy says.

"Well, that’'s what I want to talk to you about. The past two Fridays, you checked in code that broke the build. I know you want to finish your stories, but I don't want the build to break. When the build breaks, it affects me as a technical lead because the team can't build. Everyone is running around saying, 'What the heck happened?’ When we discover it's in your code, you're not here to help. When I hear the team complaining about that, I tell them, 'Wait a minute, Jimmy has an arrangement to leave early on Friday.' One person told me, ‘Well, we might as well all leave early on Fridays.'"

"Oh. I didn't realize."

"I figured you didn’t realize. How can we resolve this?"

"Well, I guess I could pair on my stories."

"That's one great solution. Do you have another idea?"

"You want another idea?"

"Well, what if no one is available? I happen to know that no one is available right now. So, today, you can’t pair with anyone. You would have had to ask yesterday to pair today. So, you need another option—maybe even two."

"Well, I could do test-driven development. That way, I would know that my code would pass the tests.”

“I like that one!”

“I thought you would. Hmm, Maybe I could stop taking stories alone. I thought I had to, since I was leaving early, but maybe I don't."

"I don’t think you have to take stories alone either. Even if you leave early, your other teammates can continue to work together when you're gone. So, now you have three great options: pairing, test-first development, and swarming. Or—a fourth option—you could wait until Monday to finish, when your brain is less focused on getting out of the office! What are you going to do today?"

"Uh," Jimmy says. "Not check anything in until I have worked with someone else?"

"Great idea!" Lauren says. "Thanks!"

This feedback scenario took fewer than five minutes. It didn’t go on anyone's HR record. It’s not a management issue. And, we bet that in two or three months, no one will remember it. That's because the team managed it.

Unpack the Feedback

A lot occurred in the above scenario. Let’'s break it down.

1. Ensure that there is no embarrassment.

First, it was private. Lauren took Jimmy aside. She could have done this in a group of people, but she didn’t want to embarrass him. She assumed he was doing the best job he could. That assumption led her to believe that he was rushing through his work rather than leaving things to the last minute. Since her assumption was a generous interpretation, she decided Jimmy needed a private conversation.

Because feedback often requires privacy, it can be hard to pull off in the team room. However, two people can often find a quiet corner, move into a hallway, take a walk, or find an empty conference room. One of our favorites is a coffee shop, because no one around you has any interest in what you're talking about. The key is to find a neutral location so the two people have a place to discuss the issue. Do not try to talk about the conversation in the team room, where the buzz is too loud—or, worse, where the buzz might stop just as you start giving feedback and the feedback will be out in the open. Find a private place for feedback.

2. Focus on the data.

Lauren provided Jimmy data. Lauren did not label Jimmy. Lauren did not use the word "always" or "never" or "everyone." She provided data and explained how his actions affected her directly. She did not speak for other people.

3. Explain how you are affected, using "I" language.

Feedback is most effective when you explain how you are personally affected. It's least effective when you try to intervene on someone else's behalf.  Lauren said, "When the build breaks, it affects me as a developer manager because I can't build." If she had said, “The developers can't build," that would have been weaker. She was speaking from first-hand experience.

4. Ask for joint problem solving.

Lauren also didn’t assume she had the all the answers. She could have told Jimmy what to do. She certainly had some ideas. Here, Lauren moved into coaching Jimmy by helping him to consider more than one option.

Sometimes you don’t have more than one option, but often you do. If you can consider at least three options, your solution will be stronger for it.

Feedback Works Regardless of the Issue

You might think that this type of feedback works for only work-related issues. However, we also have seen this kind of feedback work for people who don’t bathe regularly, who have bad breath, and who sneeze into their hands before a handshake—in other words, all the interpersonal issues that make you say, "Ick!"

When you want to provide this kind of feedback, say, “You may not realize this, but you just sneezed into that hand. I don't want to get sick, so I'll wait until you wash your hands to shake." The other person almost always says, "Oh, I didn't realize! Let me wash with soap and be right back!" Chances are quite good the other person did not realize.

Getting Started

Somewhere in your life—either at work or at home—there is someone who needs feedback.  Does your pair partner eat Cheetos while he's got the keyboard? Did your manager come to the office with a nasty cold rather than taking a sick day? If you don’t talk to them about the effects of their behavior on you, then they might never realize that there’s an issue. Remember that feedback is not always negative! If your son emptied the dishwasher instead of putting his dirty glass in the sink, let him know how much you appreciate it!

Keep these four steps in mind:

  1. Ensure that there is no embarrassment. That’s why you want to create an opening and ask for a private place to deliver the feedback.
  2. Focus on the data.
  3. Explain how you are affected using "I" language.
  4. Ask for joint problem solving.

We hope this article helps you build your teams through feedback.

Further Reading

On feedback:

  • Esther Derby has written about this extensively on her blog at
  • Rothman, Johanna and Esther Derby, Behind Closed Doors: Secrets of Great Management (Dallas and Raleigh: Pragmatic Bookshelf, 2005).
  • Seashore, Charles, Edith Seashore, and Gerald M. Weinberg, What Did You Say? The Art of Giving and Receiving Feedback (Bingham House Books, 1997).

On why performance reviews are so stupid:

  • Buckingham, Marcus and Curt Coffman, First, Break All the Rules: What the World's Greatest Managers Do Differently (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999).
  • Hope, Jeremy and Robin Fraser, Beyond Budgeting: How Managers Can Break Free from the Annual Performance Trap (Harvard Business Press, 2003).
  • Kohn, Alfie, Punished by Rewards (New York: Houghton-Mifflin, 1993).
  • Pfeffer, Jeffrey, The Human Equation: Building Profits by Putting People First (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1998).
  • Pfeffer, Jeffrey, What Were They Thinking? Unconventional Wisdom About Management (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2007).
  • Pfeffer, Jeffrey and Robert I. Sutton, Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths And Total Nonsense: Profiting From Evidence-based Management (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2006).
  • Rothman, Johanna, "Agile Managers: The Essence of Leadership,"

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