Coaching Your Agile Team to Master Honest and Constructive Feedback: A Scrum Master's Guide

Posted By - Geoff Watts


Transforming Team Dynamics Through Mastering Constructive Feedback

In the Agile software development world, few teams I have come across can say they have mastered feedback. The inability to give and receive honest feedback can threaten to undermine the good work your team has done and hinder their potential for greatness. This inability can lead to misunderstandings, missed opportunities for improvement, and tension within the team. As a Scrum Master, you strive to become great and lead your team to greatness. In this pursuit, one common challenge you’ll likely encounter is coaching your team to develop their ability to give honest and constructive feedback to one another.


Imagine a team that has been working well together, delivering quality software on time. However, there’s an underlying issue: the team members avoid giving honest feedback to each other. One day, a lack of communication between (let’s call him) Ian and another of the developers causes a bug to surface. Instead of having a direct conversation about the communication issue, the team simply opts to fix the issue without discussing the cause or addressing the root problem. This lack of feedback leads to a repeating pattern of similar issues arising in future projects.

It’s understandable in a way because that conversation could be uncomfortable; we can’t be sure people will react well and if the problem is fixed then is it worth the hassle and stress? Also, that’s management’s job isn’t it?

If left unaddressed though, this pattern could escalate, causing frustration among team members, impacting their ability to collaborate effectively, and ultimately affecting the quality of their work.

If you’re the Scrum Master for this team, this is a great coaching opportunity to help your team towards mastering feedback.

Coaching Your Team Towards the Feedback Milestone

To help your team develop their ability to give honest feedback, you can draw on the insights provided in this Team Mastery Milestone Card.

Here’s how a great Scrum Master could approach coaching the team towards this milestone:

  1. Start with listening. Before focusing on feedback, practice really listening to one another first. Check out this post on The 7 Deadly Types of Poor Listening.
  2. Acknowledge the risks: Ensure the risks associated with giving open and honest feedback are discussed and mitigated. For example as being overly critical, making it personal, or offering un-actionable criticism. Help your team recognise these pitfalls and understand the importance of avoiding them.
  3. Emphasise the rewards: Encourage the team to consider the rewards of honest feedback with each other, including how it enables improvement at both the individual and team levels. Highlight the benefits of support, humility, and a drive for continuous improvement that come from being able to share feedback openly and with care.
  4. Introduce structured feedback models: Offer your team some structured feedback models like Action-Impact-Desired Behaviour, Non-Violent Communication, or Situation-Behaviour-Impact. These models provide a framework for constructive and empathetic feedback, maintaining a balance between assertiveness and respectfulness. There are some videos on this in the notes below.
  5. Implement feedback rituals: Encourage your team to adopt a ritual to help them get into the habit of good feedback. For example the three-question mantra, “Is it true? Is it helpful? Is it kind?”. This helps ensure that feedback is both constructive and compassionate.
  6. Create a team charter: Collaborate with your team to develop a team charter outlining their values and expectations for feedback. This charter serves as a foundation for their feedback rituals, guiding their interactions and ensuring that they reap the rewards of honest feedback.

How to Give Constructive Feedback

Giving constructive feedback is a crucial aspect of effective communication in any team setting. Unfortunately, it’s not always easy to provide feedback that is both honest and constructive. To do this, you need to have empathy and clarity in your approach. This means putting yourself in the other person’s shoes, understanding their perspective, and delivering feedback in a way that is respectful and non-judgmental.

It’s important to focus on behavior rather than personality when giving feedback. Instead of criticizing the person, you should focus on the specific behavior that needs improvement. This helps to prevent the recipient from feeling attacked or defensive and makes the feedback more actionable. It’s also important to provide specific examples of the behavior and actionable steps that the person can take to improve.

In addition to these strategies, it’s essential to approach feedback with a growth mindset. This means emphasizing that feedback is an opportunity for improvement rather than a personal attack. When feedback is delivered in this way, it creates a culture of continuous improvement, where team members are empowered to learn and grow from their mistakes. By following these guidelines, you can provide constructive feedback that fosters growth and development within your team.

Is Constructive Criticism Positive or Negative?

When it comes to feedback, there is often confusion around whether constructive criticism is positive or negative. Some may see criticism as inherently negative, while others see it as a necessary component of growth and improvement. The truth is, constructive criticism can be both positive and negative, depending on how it is delivered and received.

Constructive criticism is feedback that is aimed at helping someone improve their skills, behaviors, or performance. It is given with the intention of helping the recipient grow and develop, rather than to simply point out flaws or mistakes. In this sense, constructive criticism can be seen as positive, as it provides an opportunity for improvement and growth. However, constructive criticism can also be seen as negative if it is delivered harshly or without empathy, causing the recipient to feel attacked or demoralized.

It is important to remember that feedback is a two-way street. The way feedback is delivered is just as important as the content of the feedback itself. As a Scrum Master, it is your responsibility to coach your team on how to give and receive feedback effectively, emphasizing the importance of empathy and respect in the feedback process. By fostering a culture of constructive and compassionate feedback, you can help your team grow and thrive.

Lead Your Team to Master Feedback

One tactic to help their teams master feedback I’ve seen from a few great Scrum Masters is to invite teams to practice giving feedback to them on their role as Scrum Master. They create a safe space with explicit guarantees of no consequences to enable any nervous team member to feel more confident.

As a Scrum Master, coaching your team to develop their ability to give and receive honest feedback is crucial in guiding them towards greatness. By understanding the challenge, recognising the risks, and employing effective coaching techniques, you can transform your team’s dynamics and unlock their true potential. Embrace your role as a Scrum Master and lead your team to mastery through empathy, effective communication, and continuous improvement.

For more articles on feedback, check out:

The Power of Constructive Feedback for Product Managers

Lin’s Journey to Fixing Feedback


How to give effective feedback

How To Get Better At Embracing Feedback

Non Violent Communication

Team Mastery Milestone Cards

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