Five tips for giving feedback at work

Feedback at work

The coach saunters into a sweat-filled locker room, solemn and steely-eyed, surrounded by a dejected group of athletes looking as if they’d rather do absolutely anything else in the world than head back out for the second half. The coach breaks the silence, delivering his sermon to a rising crescendo of hollers and fist pumps, until the team charges back out to overcome the odds and win the day. 

It’s a scene straight from many a great film. If only it were so easy in real life.

Unfortunately, most of us are not professional athletes, and the complex work teams of modern organizations require more than just a pep-talk to perform to their full potential. Further, it’s a question of far more than just motivation or leadership.

Sure, there’s no shortage of general leadership research, trainings, and development tools. We have extensive research on how to provide feedback to individuals, both in the context of performance reviews and day-to-day activities. However, providing feedback to teams poses a unique set of challenges that, until recently, have rarely been considered.

It is a clichéd metaphor, but teams can just as easily be either greater than or less than the sum of their parts. A team of experts does not necessarily make for an expert team. Everyone’s heard the saying ‘too many cooks in the kitchen’, and it certainly defies belief that Chelsea’s £215 million worth of talent can barely keep them in the top half of the league this year. It’s accepted wisdom that teams have the potential to improve performance, but there are far more factors to consider. Providing feedback is an effective way to influence these factors before, during, and after the team completes its task.

Fortunately, there is some excellent research coming out regarding team feedback specifically. We can also make a few inferences based on team training theory and what we already know about providing individual feedback. The following is a list of best practices to follow when giving feedback to work teams.

1. Avoid “Feedback Addiction”

In the academic literature, there is conflicting research considering the merits of concurrent feedback (Feedback that takes place during the task) versus terminal feedback (After the task is completed). Central to this debate is the “guidance hypothesis”, which states that constant feedback from an instructor will lead to over-reliance, such that when the feedback is removed, performance will diminish. 

To avoid this “feedback addiction”, research suggests that it’s most effective to offer both concurrent and terminal feedback to begin with, and then transition to only terminal feedback as the task progresses.  Thus, you realize the immediate performance returns of concurrent feedback, but by eliminating it over time, you avoid the risk of over-reliance. Team leaders should by no means treat it as an absolute that concurrent feedback should be completely discontinued after a task has been completed once, but there’s evidence to suggest that leaders should be wary of feedback addiction.

2.Cultivate a Team-First Attitude with Cross Training

More than just a preference for working in teams, what academics term a collective orientation includes the tendency to coordinate, evaluate, and use the input of other teammates, as well as general behaviours that improve team and individual performance.  Research shows that in stressful situations, individuals tend to focus their attention inward. They focus on their individual task and become less willing to interact and accept feedback or input from others task. Incentivizing team members to work as a team by developing a collective orientation may limit the negative effects of stress on team performance.

Working as a collective

Cross training, or training each team member on all the different duties and positions within the team, is an ideal way to develop a collective orientation. Cross training has been shown in numerous studies to be effective in improving teamwork processes and communication, as well as overall team performance. 

3.Enable the Team to Self-Correct

Unfortunately, no one can guarantee that feedback will improve performance. What’s worse, if done incorrectly, it can actually have a negative impact. Unstructured team debriefings can lead to inaccurate mental models. Additionally, showed how a focus on scenario-specific corrections during debriefing can lead to negative learning if trainees attempted to generalize scenario-specific learning to broader novel events. 

For these reasons, using feedback to enable teams to self-correct can be an important safeguard. Teams can be trained and given the responsibility for diagnosing and solving their own performance issues. By utilizing consistent, structured debriefings with standardized forms, leaders enable team members to learn techniques to more effectively critique their own performance. If your approach to feedback is “just wing it”, your team will never develop the skills to self-correct on their own.

4.Feedback from Multiple Sources

When it comes to team feedback, there can be no such thing as too many sources. Self-feedback, peer-feedback, and leader feedback are all valuable here, and receiving the same feedback from multiple sources makes it that much harder to ignore.

Team feedback from multiple sources

This goes back to the value of guided team self-correction, which allows teams to provide themselves with valuable self and peer-feedback. Even in situations where feedback is primarily offered through a team leader, it’s still best to elicit input from team members whenever possible, which encourages team members to analyse their own performance rather than becoming overly reliant on external feedback. This increases process-level learning while also avoiding the potential feedback addiction issues discussed earlier.

5.Motivate, Strategize, Educate

When it comes to teams research, academics often speak of the team’s “life cycle.” In the workplace, new teams are constantly being formed, and existing teams are dissolved as they complete their tasks or become redundant. Thus, we train and provide feedback to teams differently depending on where they are in that life cycle.

Teams can critique your own performance

When a team is first formed, motivational feedback is important to increase effort and spur buy-in toward the goal. Positive motivation can be in the form of rewards, recognition, or anything that might serve to increase feelings collective efficacy. Researchers in the ‘90s found that airline captains who took time during their pre-flight briefings to affirm the positive features of the crew fared better than those whose captains gave no briefing at all.  Taking the time to celebrate and promote successes is a particularly effective strategy early in the life cycle. 

Strategic feedback should come very close to the midpoint of the team’s life cycle, as people are much less receptive to strategy adjustments early on. Research shows us that teams often undergo a major strategic transition at almost the exact midpoint of their life cycle; they rethink behaviours, reengage with leaders/facilitators, and adopt new perspectives.  Thus, it is at this time that providing strategic feedback would be the most useful. 

Team feedback and when change is likely to occur

Finally, referring back to the first best practice, we know that the end of the team life cycle (potentially even after the task is complete) is the optimal time to provide educational feedback that addresses the knowledge and skills that were involved in the completion of the task.

What Does It All Mean?

Given the complexity of teams in modern organizations, it’s simply impossible to provide one standard set of rules for giving feedback. However, these tips are widely applicable and easily followed, and should help leaders across a variety of organizations provide more effective feedback to their teams.

Andrew Marcinko
Andrew Marcinko
Group Researcher

Andrew is a PhD Candidate in the Work and Organisational Psychology department at Aston Business School. His current research is focused on diversity and inclusion in the workplace, with a particular focus on training, team performance, and employee well-being.

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