This blog post is Part 3 of the series Feedback for Engineers.

With the previous posts around giving and receiving feedback, you have a good set of tactics for giving and receiving feedback yourself. But how could you encourage this more on your team?

Whether you’re new to the team or you’re the team leader, it shouldn’t matter. This type of thing starts small. Try bringing up in a standup or during a retro, “Hey, how would we feel about trying to get better about giving feedback to each other?” If there’s enough buy-in, forward them the previous posts and try some of the activities below.

Delivering and receiving feedback gets easier with practice. Set a personal goal to deliver feedback (positive or negative) a few times a week, no matter how small. Get into the habit. But you might need a little nudge to start, so let’s do a little exercise.

Prerequisite: Psychological Safety

It’s pointless to discuss tactics here without acknowledging that your team must trust each other. At a wider organizational level, it helps if the organization accepts failure: messing up shouldn’t cost you your job.

Spending time outside of work (but during work hours) helps build bonds outside of delivering 100 units of WorkProduct™. Use those expense budgets to plan offsites and get to know each other.

Certain behaviors as a leader of a team can also help here. Show some vulnerability by being self-critical or by publicly sharing feedback you’ve received in the past. “Here’s what I’m trying to get better at” sends a strong message.

Activity: Harmless Feedback

I’ve seen this exercise done at a few different places. You’ll need about an hour for this activity.

It revolves around one idea: Find something that no one could take personal offense to receiving feedback on. The facilitator can either bring in some tchotchkes or the facilitator can have each individual draw something (usually bunnies are a go-to). Drawing can be a good ice breaker because it’s more personal than a tchotchke and most software engineers tend to be pretty bad at drawing.

Have each team member pair off and give feedback to their partner’s drawing using the Situation, Behavior, Impact (SBI) framework. Pay attention to the mechanics and the ordering. It feels a little silly, but understanding how the feedback feels coming out of your own mouth helps. Doing it during a trial run can help prepare individuals for when the real time comes.

Do this a few times, perhaps with different drawings. Pause each time to take notice of what works well and not so well for each pair. Everyone participating should come away with a new tool for their feedback toolbelt.

Extended Activity: Creating More Specific Feedback

You can also extend the previous example by encouraging individuals to get specific with their feedback. Specific feedback (both positive and negative) will be more actionable. It also indicates that you are investing in this feedback as the deliverer.1

To do this, you will need a deck of cards. The goal here is to again deliver feedback, but using the cards to determine what type of feedback you should give. Draw a card, and based on its suit, deliver feedback accordingly:

  • Clubs (♣) - Negative and imprecise
  • Diamonds (♦) - Positive and pointed
  • Hearts (❤) - Positive and imprecise
  • Spades (♠) - Negative and precise

Try to do a few different suits for each pair doing the feedback exercise. The goal here is to get a feel for what the different types of feedback feels like for both the sender and the receiver. You want to encourage the Diamonds and Spades style of feedback, i.e. the more specific feedback.

Conclusion

These activities are designed to go from zero to one with your team when it comes to giving feedback. This gives team members an opportunity to practice both giving and receiving feedback in low pressure scenarios.

This post is the final post of the Feedback for Engineers series. You can read Part 1: Giving Feedback and Part 2: Receiving Feedback.


Special thanks to Justin Duke, Emily Field, Omri Ben Shitrit, and Ketki Duvvuru for feedback on early drafts of this post.

Illustration by Ash Jin.

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  1. It is extremely aggro, but I love the quote from Whiplash on this matter: “There are no two words in the English more harmful than ‘good job.’” Get specific with your feedback!