How to Give Your Team Feedback

By Rebecca Knight | Harvard Business Review | June 16, 2014


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.

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