Three Conversations and No funeral: Fixing Feedback

Posted By - Ceri Newton-Sargunar


Case Study: Lin’s Journey in Fixing Feedback

Lin is a Team Lead and Technical Expert at an international energy firm and like so many of us, when we first started working together she absolutely 


giving feedback. 

The horrible clammy-handed pit-of-your-stomach feeling when she had to drop some tough truths on one of her underperforming team.

The awkward, slightly sickening dread of knowing she needed to tell someone to sort their sh* out.

Even, sometimes, just to give them some praise.

Why Traditional Feedback Methods Fail

The problem is that we often fear that delivering cold hard facts risks a defensive or even an emotionally explosive outburst. In Lin’s case she was so worried it was going to create conflict with Jacques, the team’s Product Owner, that she just didn’t say anything at all. Even when she did say anything it was mostly niceties and platitudes, in the hope that Jacques would be more friendly towards her and follow her lead, or pick up the hint and notice ways to do better.

Of course, that didn’t actually change anything – except how frustrated she and the rest of the team felt.

With a thoroughly fed up team, Lin decided to test out a model of feedback you might be familiar with: the “sandwich” method. She nestled the harsh facts in between gentle words and whatever praise she could muster.

Not surprisingly Jacques’ reaction to this was to ignore all the “nice” stuff, and to only focus on the criticism. Jacques saw Lin’s observations as an attack and got defensive anyway, and then ruminated on it bitterly for months, resenting Lin for the sense of betrayal.

A sandwich with Mr Hankey the Christmas Poo in the middle. The pieces of bread are labelled "irrelevant" and "who cares"
There’s a reason its NSFW moniker is a variation of the “poop sandwich”

Lin had used a commonly known approach that unfortunately, rarely changes anything – certainly not the dread she felt when she knew she was going to have to wheel it out again.

Fixing Feedback: The Compassion Element

The first answer to this question was not necessarily an easy one given the circumstances, but she agreed to find ways to have compassion for Jacques, and to see the human in front of her both before and during the conversation. She was surprised to find that understanding that Jacques wasn’t being deliberately malicious or disruptive did help to make the conversation a bit easier to walk into.

It helped because when we’re able to be compassionate about whatever circumstances may have led to the issue we’re tackling, we’re not condoning poor behaviour, but we are acknowledging that all of us make mistakes (sometimes – actually, really quite often – repeatedly, even after being told several times). We’re giving space for the idea that mistakes don’t make us bad people which means we don’t have to get defensive, to cover them up.

What Do You Really Want When Fixing Feedback?

Next, keeping the human in mind, Lin sought to answer the question “what’s in it for me?” Lin recognised that if she was giving feedback that only served her needs, that was going to be apparent in everything she said, which wouldn’t give Jacques a good reason to make any changes. When Lin thought about the reasons Jacques might want to change what he was doing (without making it a threat!) and by focusing on how the change would benefit Jacques, Lin started bringing Jacques on the journey with her.

Similarly, by considering what outcome she wanted, she then asked herself “what is it that I really want from this conversation?” and thought about why that was important to her, and what she was willing to work through to achieve that aim. She found that by keeping this outcome in mind, she was far more able to let some of her own reactions go during the chat; by keeping the end goal as her focus, she could use it to help her regulate her own reactions and stay calmer in the moment.

Putting these first two steps can completely change the way we approach a feedback conversation: our tone, our stance, and what we let ourselves assume. In Lin’s case, thinking about her state and motivations before and during the conversation altered the whole mood and the conversation went far better than she had expected; the absence of finger-pointing at the outset made for a completely different and more positive experience.

Separating the Problem from the Individual

Building on this progress, in a chat about release quality later that month with Amanda, one of their Senior Engineers, the next step to practice was to separate the problem from the individual.

It can be immensely hard not to take it personally when someone criticises our work because we often tie our identity to the things we make and do: if you think my work is no good, you think I am no good. We do like to feel valued, and so Lin began by acknowledging the immense value Amanda brings to the team. Recognising Amanda’s important contribution helped to mitigate some of the pain of a slip in quality. It’s important to note that however we deliver it, MRI scans have shown that negative feedback registers in the same brain areas as real physical pain.

So, focusing attention on what needs to be improved and enhanced also helped take some of the sting out of Lin’s feedback, far more than focusing on what she thought Amanda had done wrong. Lin kept the focus of the conversation on what needed to be different next time, which felt far more achievable and hopeful, and far less threatening. Nurture what you want to grow.

When later faced with an issue between Oba and Alissa, two of the team’s graduates, and a customer representative, Lin expanded on her growing skillset by getting everyone to stick to the facts as much as possible, encouraging everyone involved to say only what they noticed happen, the impact they saw this have, and what they’d like to see instead. Taking this approach to a tricky situation kept the focus on the event, not in the individuals, and helped both graduates save face and reduce some of the natural defensiveness most of us feel when we get negative feedback.

The Power of Empathy in Fixing Feedback

In each of the conversations she had, Lin found that having empathy for the circumstances that led to the situation, and then acknowledging her contribution to how things had worked out, was immensely powerful, sending a strong message of safety and solidarity. This isn’t suggesting that Lin had to hold herself wholly responsible for the issues the team encountered, but vulnerability on her part, and a willingness to see how her actions may have allowed things to unfold the way they did, helped increase how safe the conversation feels. Lin kept hold of the idea that if it was okay for her to admit that she made a mistake, it might be okay for them to also admit they made a mistake.

What we were ultimately seeking was to shift the focus away from blame and shame (which almost always trigger defensiveness), and instead, move towards proactive steps that we can all take for a better outcome.

In her conversation with Oba and Alissa, Lin was able to convey the message that “you’re not a shameful or bad person”, and the space she made for safety meant they could both more freely acknowledge what happened without feeling they had to cover up the mistake; both were able to address it more proactively, and collaboratively, instead. Lin’s approach also sent the powerful message that neither of them were isolated, that “you’re not doing this alone”. Even when the conversation was hard, Lin showed that she was willing to help them; they needed to do the work but Lin was indisputably there to help, sending out a clear signal: “I’ve got your back”.

Inviting Feedback on Your Feedback: The Meta Approach

These steps aren’t necessarily easy, and they do take practice. Lin often got it wrong. But by also inviting feedback on her feedback, she was able to begin opening up a better conversation, and to show that mistakes, and learning from them, are all part of creating a high performing team.

She began to notice more collaboration and cooperation. She even began to see some constructive conflict, people starting to welcome – even demand, feedback and disagreement with their idea. One of my favourite phrases from working with this tight-knit team was, after sharing an idea or making a bold statement, that they would frequently remember to add (often with a big grin and genuine delight): “disagree with me, pick it apart!”

Possibly, if you’re tempted to give this a go yourself then, like Lin, you might find a renewed sense of purpose and motivation. You might perhaps even find some joy in the practice – the art – the gift – of giving and receiving really great feedback.

Your Turn: Practical Steps for Fixing Feedback in Your Team

You don’t have to be perfect to start fixing feedback in your team. Pick something from this article and give it a go.

We have more articles on feedback here:

Coaching Your Agile Team to Master Honest and Constructive Feedback

The Power of Constructive Feedback: A Guide for Product Managers

Check out this video on giving feedback

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