Giving and Receiving Constructive Feedback

Giving and Receiving Constructive Feedback

When I teach classes, I have a retrospective at the end of each day, inviting students to use sticky notes to put items in the three columns:

  1. What worked?
  2. What could be better?
  3. What do we want to do tomorrow?

Throughout the day, I also play a game where students earn points for demonstrating agile behaviors. During the retrospective, after everyone has put up their sticky notes, I give double points for those items listed in the “What could be better” column.

Why? Because for most people, giving constructive feedback is difficult. No one wants to be viewed as “negative” and there’s also fear of hurting someone’s feelings. However, constructive feedback is important in order to continually improve. It’s the primary purpose of having a retrospective.

Receiving constructive feedback is even more difficult than giving it. We often DO take it personally, as much as we try not to.

I know that every time I teach a class, I tell myself that I MUST demonstrate what I’m about to teach: No matter how negative I perceive the feedback, I must not act defensive or like my feelings are hurt. It’s important to show people that giving constructive feedback is safe.

There are many lessons on how to give and receive feedback, but here are two I learned from participating in groups where feedback is given in a very formulaic way.

Lesson 1: Ask Everyone to Contribute at Least 1 Positive and 1 Constructive Piece of Feedback

As I’ve written in why fearless feedback is critical to agile development success, a lesson I learned from Toast Masters is how to give a good evaluation speech, sandwiching constructive feedback between positive feedback.

However, beyond the lesson of softening the constructive feedback by including what is going well, the other aspect that provides an element of comfort here is that constructive feedback is expected.

Though the feedback may not carry as much weight if it’s formulaic, it gives both the giver and receiver an avenue to both give and receive difficult feedback.

Instruct those who are giving feedback to list at least one thing that worked well and one thing that could be better, even if they have to dig deep.

Getting feedback this way takes away the sting of an unexpected or unsolicited criticism. This also gives those giving the feedback permission and the safety to say what they feel and not worry they will be viewed as negative.

Lesson 2: Remember That Not Everyone Feels the Same Way

The other lesson I learned was from my writing group. It was very common in critiquing writing that two of those critiquing would have completely opposing viewpoints. One person may have said they absolutely loved a certain passage of an essay, while another may have considered it unnecessary or boring.

However, there might be other areas of the same essay where pretty much the whole group was in agreement that the passage was especially good or that it really needed work. Since everyone in this group was interested in writing, they typically had the gift to articulate specifically what they did or didn’t like about the work.

This phenomenon occurred so often that it became very clear that as a writer, it was important to not stress over a single negative opinion, but really poll the group and focus on the areas where there was consensus.

You cannot please everyone when you’re working on something creative. However, having a deeper understanding of the criticism really helped clarify that subjective works will result in differing opinions. This also allows everyone’s opinions to be heard and considered.

This is true in our work as well. When you have a retrospective, do not rush out to solve every issue that’s brought up without first discussing with the group. Some people may not agree with one person’s feedback. Focus on the areas where there is consensus on obvious need for improvement.

Giving and receiving constructive feedback is not easy, but it’s one of the most important aspects of the lean-agile mindset.

The next time you receive some uncomfortable feedback, challenge yourself to accept it graciously, learn from it, and then, rather than feeling sad, hurt or upset, feel grateful and excited to be able to improve.


Yvette Francino has more than 30 years in the software development industry, and is an independent consultant, experienced agile leader, coach, author and trainer in various methodologies including SAFe, Scrum, Kanban and large-scale custom methodologies.

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