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Constructive Feedback is a Hard But Essential Part of Being an Agile Team Member

Have you ever had a teammate that was doing something that was bugging you? If you answered “no” to that question, you haven’t worked on a team before. The experience is ubiquitous. The first question we need to ask ourselves is, “is this a pet peeve that I need to get over or is this behavior hurting the team or other members?” If it is the former, you just gave yourself some constructive feedback. If it is the latter, you need to share some constructive feedback with your teammate.

“High functioning agile teams need to master the art of giving and receiving feedback.”

Unless you happen to do such things for a living, it’s going to be hard. My suggestion to you is to lean into the difficulty. One way to be a good lifelong learner is to recognize these uncomfortable moments as great opportunities to expand yourself. Seize the opportunity and help everyone at the same time! What a deal!

There are whole books on feedback. Crucial Conversations is a well-known one, but I prefer Thanks for the Feedback. Although that book is about “receiving” feedback, it has great information about giving it, too. Here, I will offer a few words of advice.

The first challenge is how to offer the feedback. My suggestion here is to be direct. At the first opportunity after the observed behavior, reach out to the person one-on-one and simply say “I have some constructive feedback for you. Let me know if you are interested.” If they don’t reach back or say “no thanks,” let it go! Feedback is only valuable if the receiver is receptive. If they don’t want it (or don’t want it from you), don’t waste your time.

Assuming they are interested in hearing what you have to say, when you give them the feedback, don’t feel obligated to sugar coat it. Beating around the bush only increases the tension. Get it out there right away.

That said, recognize that this is likely an emotionally charged situation and empathy is extremely valuable. Start with the specific facts. They are least likely to supercharge the situation. For example, you might say something like, “in this morning’s team meeting you interrupted people three times. One of those people was me.” Now, pause! Give them a minute to process the information. They are probably dealing with emotions and thinking about what they did and why they did it. If they want to respond to you, that pause will give them time to formulate something to say, which you should listen to with an open mind. It’s not uncommon to end up getting constructive feedback for yourself in this moment.

There are four likely scenarios that come next:

  1. They remain silent. After 10 or 15 seconds, if they haven’t responded, this is a good time to tell them how you felt about the situation. For example, “I was a little annoyed that I didn’t get to finish my thought and also that you didn’t think it was important enough to let me finish it.” You may get to this anyway, but it’s a good next step if the person is in “listen only mode.”

  2. They get defensive. This is pretty common. In their mind, they are just offering an “explanation” for their behavior. My suggestion here is to not enter a debate about whether their explanation is valid or not. That can end badly for both of you and may require skills you don’t have to navigate it effectively. The alternative is to say something like, “I’m not here to debate with you about whether you were justified or not -- that’s entirely up to you. I just wanted to share the feedback with you so that you could have the information for your own analysis.” This would be a good moment to share how you felt as in the example in #1.

  3. They get angry and attack you. This is the most uncomfortable situation and it is the reason we don’t like giving feedback. Keep in mind that this is an emotionally charged situation and try to maintain empathy. Stepping back is probably a good idea. You could say something like, “it seems like you have some feedback for me too. I’d love to hear it, but why don’t we step away and cool down first. Would it be okay if I circled back with you later on that feedback for me?” If they keep coming at you, you may have to unilaterally step away. Often, people will apologize for their behavior later when they cool off, but if the animosity continues, you should get a third party involved.

  4. They thank you for the feedback and ask follow up questions. This is the sign of a person with high emotional intelligence (or who has been trained in receiving feedback). You may want to still share how it made you feel, but you should let the conversation proceed naturally.

There are undoubtedly various combinations and permutations of these scenarios, but these are the basics. Once you get past this, you can use your instincts. Just remember to keep an open mind and maintain empathy.

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