Feedback isn’t just what you think it is

Article by Ria Baeck, Drawings by An Baert — Percolab Belgium


Feedback for self-managing teams

For self-managing teams, ‘giving feedback’ to each other is considered vital and essential. But there are pitfalls in giving feedback, and before you embark, as a team, on a journey to learn this skill and its practices, it is wise to think a bit more deeply about it.

We see feedback as having three different faces: feedback as correction; feedback as coaching; and feedback as curiosity. If you’ve been thinking that feedback is just one or two of these, then it is really worth taking another look at what else it might be, as that may fit in with a different level of teamwork which you might be aspiring to. And confusing these levels is a recipe for misunderstandings and mistakes in the practice of giving feedback.

Of course, giving feedback is just one of the several practices that contribute towards making a self-managed or self-governed team effective and efficient. Even in the workplace, there is much more to mature emotional relationships than simply giving feedback.

Feedback as correction in traditional organisations

In traditional, mainstream, working culture, feedback is generally related to goals, mostly specified by the one(s) in charge, in the context of established roles and functions. One of the normal roles of the manager includes giving feedback about how well or badly we are doing the job. As a (traditional) employee, it is our responsibility to internalise what our roles and tasks are; to learn to focus on the set tasks; and to keep our behaviour within the norms of acceptability for our role. It involves learning about ‘how things are done here’. Thus, feedback will involve corrective signals to guide the ‘subordinate’ person towards playing the role ‘properly’, and towards achieving the overall goals of the management.

There is obviously a power relationship implied here. The presumption is that there is a more powerful, or knowledgeable, or experienced person, perhaps called the ‘manager’, who is giving the feedback to the less knowledgeable / experienced / privileged person, the ‘subordinate’, and that part of the established role of this ‘manager’ is to give feedback, which may be felt as an entitlement of that role.

Feedback as correction

As Stephanie Vozza writes in this article, “While feedback can be useful for correcting harmful mistakes, it’s not the best method for helping an employee excel.” She goes on to quote Marcus Buckingham: “Fixating on remediation and repair isn’t going to get you very far. It gets you to not failing.”

The business world has already started to grow away from simple correction. Consider how “360-degree feedback” has grown in popularity in recent years. The whole concept of who and what a ‘subordinate’ is is changing and contextual; it represents a step forward from the simple role models. It is intended to be collaborative… but not always done well.

When it is embedded in a broader communication culture, this kind of feedback is not just about ‘criticising ’or ‘correcting’ but rather about completing a feedback loop in a learning cycle. Susan Basterfield wrote to us: “There are many recent and well documented examples of organisations who are going hard-out with diagnostic feedback to the extreme, like Bridgewater for example (as described in An Everyone Culture by Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey and in Ray Dalio’s Principles) who I believe are challenging the ‘field’ by putting forward a hypothesis that progressive organisations should embrace unmitigated radical feedback from everyone, at every level, at all times, that is performance directed.” Mistakes in themselves are no longer seen as the occasion for judgement, but as a resource for collective improvement.

This implies an intention to learn at least ‘something’. But if this ‘something’ is not made explicit, it leaves plenty of room for confusion and mistakes. We need to be clearer and more precise to adapt this for self-organising teams.

Feedback as coaching within self-managed teams

A first point to note is that, in self-organising or self-managed teams, there is little or no coercive power in the relationship. Feedback cannot take the form, for example,“you have to do it this way, not that way, or you will be fired”. And there may well be no one who knows how to do the job better than the individual team members themselves. There is no ‘boss’ dictating what the overall goals are: those too need to be agreed. As the team is composed of peers, the team will need to clarify what their aims, goals, or standards are, and find ways to give feedback that are consistent with these goals, and with the shared values of the team.

One-on-one feedback

The simplest way of understanding feedback as coaching is to start with the familiar, one-on-one model popularised in executive coaching, whether by a manager, or by a professional coach. For example, take the ‘feedback wrap’ idea from Jurgen Appelo of Management 3.0. The elements he gives are:

  1. provide context
  2. list your observations
  3. express your emotions
  4. sort by values (we liken this to NVC needs)
  5. end with suggestions (like NVC requests)

This is not to be confused with, and quite different from the so-called ‘sandwich’ model — “here’s something good about what you did; here’s the problem; here’s something else nice to add”. The sandwich is just correction packaged with some nice wrapping paper.

Professional coaches among others might recognise the non-violent communication (NVC) formula in Appelo’s wrap, preceded by providing some good context. Part of ‘providing the context’ could be to check and reaffirm the shared goals, as agreed in the team, or between the two of you; and to reassure both of you (not only the other, also your self!) that this form of feedback is not about correction but rather about peer-to-peer support.

This one-on-one feedback could be about task performance, but also about personal patterns — in case one of the goals is personal, individual development. When done genuinely, personal feedback can nurture our unique essence, and empower us to build our capacity, to reach further than we thought possible. A most helpful resource in this regard is Kegan and Lahey’s “Immunity to Change” exercise, which goes to the roots of personal patterns.

Feedback in collective practice

Beyond one-to-one coaching given privately, feedback can also be given by peers openly as part of collective practice. In that way both the giver and receiver of the feedback are embedded in the container of the team, and it becomes ‘something we do around here’.

In a horizontally organised team, goals need to be based on shared agreements on what the feedback is about — only then can there be a genuinely shared peer-to-peer context. Here are some elements to think about and work through:

  • We need to clarify what is appropriate for feedback, by bringing the actual goals into shared conscious awareness between the peers. Many times this might mean breaking down the overall goal (like ‘better communication’, which we see mentioned everywhere!) into its component parts. This process of collective reflection on the goal and its parts is important. It should be a peer-driven enquiry process, and a ‘creative analysis’.
  • If people aren’t clear about the goals (and subgoals) they are trying to achieve, or if there is actually a conflict of goals between them and the people they are interacting with, then feedback is almost guaranteed to be messy! Someone can have an idea of what a specific goal is, but someone else may have a different idea. Surfacing these differences opens the possibility of dialogue, and from there the team can start to engage skillfully with the work of harmonising those goals.
  • If feedback is not working, consider the possibility either that goals are not shared, or that feedback skills have not been sufficiently developed.
  • It may help to distinguish three aspects of feedback, related to three different kinds of goals: actual task performance; quality of team contribution; and the development of individual team members — while recognising that in practice they often can’t actually be separated!


Feedback as coaching

How to do it? Giving and receiving feedback in a team

The essence of all communication in a peer-to-peer context, and especially in giving feedback, is that you need to be aware of — and steer away from — any dynamic of parent-child, or manager-employee, or the-one-who-knows to the-one-who-is-blind… as these old behaviour patterns slip back in so easily for most of us, even if we are addressing our peers! Like in the one-on-one feedback described above, even if it sounds like a request for a certain kind of behaviour, many times it is a hidden ‘should’ that is at work. Check this out before you start!

In contrast with ‘feedback as correction’, as we named it above, in a self-steering team giving feedback could be seen as part of peer-to-peer coaching — again: with agreed upon clear goals, like specific areas of work or personal development themes. What is the essence of good coaching in this regard? Short answer: be one fallible human being alongside your peers. Come with respect and humility. Offer possibilities and questions that bring more self-understanding in your partners. Steer away from advice. Such a coaching conversation can draw from the practice that Parker Palmer calls a Circle of Trust. The key element he stresses is to ask open honest questions: doing that invokes the “inner teacher” in others — the resources to ‘help’ ourselves that we all have within us. Here he articulates it clearly:

To give good quality feedback, team members need to be aware of and have agreed to the team developmental goals in particular. How is the team actually functioning as a whole (in terms of quality / potential / possibility / openness)? Is there a shared awareness of the process of how we formulate these goals? Have we collectively established our group norms? Is there a shared practice of how we actually give feedback?

Giving feedback in a team is not something we learned in school, and probably nowhere else either; so we all need to practice, and we need to practice collectively. We might also consider the many articles and lists of skills for teamwork as traditionally understood. Recently published frameworks at least start to mention empathy, active listening and more of these ‘soft’, interpersonal skills. These are crucial!

It is also good to balance the practice of giving feedback with the practice of asking for help and/or engaging in an advice process to make sure we keep giving and receiving balanced.

As Edwin Janssen of Fitzii says:

The typical growth path is to declare the root of your fear-based actions, and publicly work on habit change by asking for feedback and support when you are hijacked by your ego or have succumbed to a negative self-talk spiral. It’s key to become increasingly mindful of these negative loops and reduce the time it takes to catch and transform them into positive thoughts, actions, and feelings.

Illustrating this, Ria says: “Being a psychotherapist myself, and growing up as the eldest child of five, I am too comfortable with giving advice and feedback. It was difficult to learn to ask for help, hard to make it into a habit: it was even hard to become conscious of what my needs were! Many of us, consultants, trainers, initiators, facilitators suffer from the same malady. You can read more about this in my book — the section on Being held by the group.”

A step onwards — feedback as curiosity

When you have practiced circle conversations — or any kind of dialogue — and that practice starts to be embedded in your daily life, you start to notice that feedback is not a separate kind of communication. It starts with an ambivalence in ourselves: I want to give feedback; but is this information about myself, or about the other person, or about both? You start to see that any question or statement about an action of another person (the recipient of the feedback) may also be taken as a statement about, or question of your self. You realise that giving feedback is also revealing something about your self. Sharing this insight, with both sides, feedback becomes part of the conversation itself.

Feedback as curiosity

We see this kind of feedback as closely related to curiosity. Back in the earlier days of Ria’s feminism there was a self-organised and self-steered women’s group, which was called Feminist Radical Therapy Practice Group. The group started off with a weekend where two facilitators trained the group to follow a fixed routine. This routine was tried out in many groups, and was intended to prevent the group going astray, because dealing with emotional stuff isn’t that easy without any outside facilitators. One part of this routine was ‘a round’ called “resentments and spinning tales” (in Dutch: “wrevels en spinsels”). Participants were instructed to articulate any annoyances, peeves, impressions about each other, frustrations and so on in a very specific format. It started off following the NVC formula: first mentioning the facts of the situation; then articulation of the feelings that arose in this situation. The third element was requests: “What I would like you to do, is …;” (all good so far). The fourth element was the hardest: “… because it will make me feel…”. That last element was a deep dive into your own psyche! Sometimes it uncovered elements you hardly knew about your self!

What made this work so well was that ‘a round’ meant that everyone was given the opportunity to speak — in this particular way, and not otherwise — but there was no conversation about it! So, no defence, no explanation, nothing. Over time, as this group met every week for at least a year, we started to see that some particular person often had frustrations about the same thing, but that at different times they pointed at different people. It became clear that this frustration was more of ‘her’ thing than it was about the rest of the group. Likewise, when we heard similar feedback from different people on our own behaviour, we could be sure it was a pattern that we were blind to! It was immensely powerful, but only because of its strict boundaries and from the fact we gathered with a regular rhythm over a lengthy period of time.

You might see this as rather extreme, or you might feel unable to go to those lengths, but it is a good example of the kind of practice that a self-managing team could use. It illustrates the kind of curiosity about the deeper aspects of your self and of others that is needed to grow into a greater capacity for self-management. We see ‘feedback as curiosity’ as a vital component of the next level of team life, whether your focus is on effectiveness and efficiency, on trust within the team, on the well-being of each individual involved, or on serving the world better.

This blog post is a co-creation of Ria Baeck and Simon Grant. The process of talking it through was highly constructive for both of us.