by Rebecca Knight
Business books, magazines, and blogs are chock full of advice about how to give feedback to individuals, but how do you do the same for your entire team? What type of constructive criticism is appropriate in a group setting? How much is too much? And how should your colleagues help?
What the Experts Say
Providing feedback isn’t solely the team leader’s responsibility, according to Mary Shapiro who teaches organizational behavior at Simmons College and is the author of the HBR Guide to Leading Teams. For starters, that would be impractical. “You can’t be the only one holding everyone accountable because you can’t possibly observe everything that’s going on,” she says. Second, if you’re the only one praising or critiquing, group dynamics suffer. “You want to give everyone the opportunity to say his piece,” she says. Your job as manager is to ensure that team members are “providing regular constructive feedback,” says Roger Schwarz, an organizational psychologist and the author of Smart Leaders, Smarter Teams. “There needs to be an expectation within the team this is a shared leadership responsibility,” he says. Here are some principles to help you lay the groundwork for ensuring and enhancing this effective team practice.
Set expectations early
“When a team works well together, it’s because its members are operating from the same mindset and are clear about their goals and their norms,” says Schwarz. At the start of a new project, help your direct reports “decide how they’re going to work together” — and importantly, how they will “hold each other accountable,” says Shapiro. She recommends coming up with an “explicit agreement” about how the team will handle issues like the division of labor and deadlines. Stipulate, for example, that if a colleague knows he is going to miss an important deadline for his portion of a project, he must email the team at least 24 hours in advance. “If someone doesn’t follow through on the expectations the team created, he’ll get feedback from the group about what happened because he fell short.”
Create opportunities for regular check-ins
There’s no hard-and-fast rule about how often your team should meet to review how things are going, but in general, “it’s better to start out with more structure and relax it over time, than to start out with too little structure and have to impose it later,” Shapiro says. When you’re in the early stages of creating a project plan, schedule regular check-ins as part of the timeline. “If the team is running smoothly you can always cancel the meeting.”
Ask general questions
Giving and receiving feedback is a skill and most people are not naturally good at it, says Shapiro. “One of your goals is to develop your team’s capacity to give feedback and help people get used to articulating how they feel the team is doing.” Take baby steps. At the second or third check-in, ask the group general questions such as, “On a scale of one to five, how well is the team sharing the workload? What needs to change?” As the leader, you’re the moderator of this conversation. Once team members have spoken, offer your two cents about “where the team excels and where it faces challenges,” Schwarz adds.
Work your way up to structured reviews
As your team gets accustomed to working together and sharing feedback, “you need to do a deeper dive into how team members are doing at the individual level,” says Shapiro. Ask each person to prepare specific reviews of colleagues to be read aloud at the next meeting. “Every team member should say one thing they appreciate about the other members and one thing that would be helpful if they did differently.” The aim is to help “people understand how their behavior is impacting others,” she says. “If they hear the same kind of feedback from multiple people, that is powerful.” When it’s your turn, Schwarz recommends validating your observations with others. “Ask: ‘Are you seeing things the same way?’ Get other people’s reactions.”
Keep performance issues out in the open
The management mantra for giving individuals feedback is: “Praise in public, criticize in private.” But in team settings, this goes out the window, according to Schwarz. “In the traditional view, it’s inappropriate to raise issues in a meeting that would make people uncomfortable or put people on the spot.” But your job as a leader is not always to make people feel comfortable. When teams have problems, “it should all be out in the open,” he says. “You alone can’t help people improve; there needs to be a group plan.” After you’ve “harnessed the power of the group” to prompt change, one-on-one conversations with struggling colleagues are then in order, says Shapiro. “Say to them: ‘What did you hear from the team? How are you going to do things differently? And how can I help?’”
Foster team relationships
Conflicts between coworkers are inevitable. But “you can’t just say, ‘I’ll handle it,’ because [as the manager] you can’t solve a problem to which you’re not a primary stakeholder,” Schwarz says. “You can coach people on how to have difficult conversations, and you can help facilitate those conversations, but team members need to address issues where the interdependencies lie.” Help colleagues build trust before problems arise by encouraging open conversation. And, when there is conflict, make sure they understand, they need to “give feedback directly to each other.” says Schwarz. Adds Shapiro: “The only way good work gets done is through good relationships — the better the relationship, the better the work.”
Debrief every project
At the end of a project or when your team is disbanding, schedule a final check-in to discuss “what worked and what didn’t, what should we bring forward and what should we do differently next time,” says Schwarz. Take careful notes: the information gleaned in this session should not only be part of the organization’s final project review, but also part of each team member’s annual performance appraisal, says Shapiro. The objective is to “provide closure on the team and also determine what each member needs to do to further develop,” she says.
Principles to Remember
Case study #1: Create opportunities for team and individual reflection
Once every quarter, Laree Daniel — chief administrative officer of Aflac, the insurance company — assembles an ad hoc team around a particular customer incident for an in-depth feedback session. “I take a customer case study in which we either did very well or very poorly, and I gather everyone that touched the customer in some form,” she says.
First, Laree makes sure everyone is up to speed. Team members are given a packet of information that includes a write-up of the incident, transcripts of phone calls, copies of customer letters, and copies of the company’s responses. Next, she poses a series of questions to the team: What worked well? Where were the gaps? What can we do better?
The goal, she says, is to get the team to reflect on the company’s behavior from both the customer’s perspective and shareholder’s. “This isn’t about blame and I’m not scolding anyone,” she says. “I am the facilitator and I make it a neutral environment.”
During these feedback meetings, colleagues often have epiphanies. “They realize: ‘I didn’t know [my behavior] would have that impact,” she says. “It becomes a dynamic learning experience.”
The feedback and information she picks up from those meetings are used to make process improvements. “Often the best ideas come from those people who were closest to the work.”
Case study #2: Focus on empowering your team
David S. Rose, the angel investor and CEO of Gust — a platform for the sourcing and management of early-stage investments — has a simple approach when it comes to giving group feedback. “The goal is not to depress the team,” he says. “I try to keep everything upbeat and lay out our strengths and our challenges.
A few years ago, for instance, he was involved in leading a 15-person technical team at a software company. The group’s biggest issue was its disappointing B2B product suite. “Customers were unhappy and the front-end salespeople were being yelled at,” he says. “As a team, we had some good individual contributors but we needed to get better at working together. I couldn’t just walk in and give feedback along the lines of: ‘These products are terrible; you’re all fired.’ We needed to identify the organizational problems and come up with a prescription for a path forward.”
He broke the team into subgroups of two or three people, and he tasked each with brainstorming how to manage a particular inter-team challenge. The subgroups then provided feedback to everyone else; based on that, the team developed a strategy to improve workflow and communication. “We came up with a plan and the whole team felt empowered,” he says. “We knew what the problems were and we figured out how to solve them.”
Within nine months, he says, the products were in far better shape.