How to give Feedback when mentoring a team


Part of our Agile Coach certification course dives into giving feedback when mentoring a team or when coaching an individual team member towards taking up a new role.

Funny enough, this part of the course is always a brilliant ground for deep debate. Questions on the reasons behind why we sometimes need to give feedback arise, debates open up on the way we ourselves like to receive feedback which is quite often followed by an interesting knowledge and experience share in which different “feedback models” fly around the class room.

As Coach trainers, we need to stand strong and allow the students to roam free in the understanding of their role and their use of feedback, and so I let the discussion go on for a few minutes. But then usually, I end up asking: Why would an Agile Coach give feedback in the first place?

I what situation would you be the right person to give feedback? An Agile Coach is NOT a manager, should not be telling people what to do, how to grow, where to improve… Although as Team coaches we need to be more directive at the start of the project, or onboarding a team, you will not see me telling a team member that they have not reached a certain goal, or missed a deadline, was late (again) for the daily, or needs to work on their communication skill.

So why is it so important to have this discussion in our class?

Because the Agile Coach is the one the entire team should feel they can partner with to reach their individual and combined goals! People should feel comfortable with receiving our feedback and observations, when requested. When I am asked to observe and record someone’s facilitation skills, I am doing this with the intention to share my observations. Offering feedback to someone who has not asked for this, is a risky business.

Why you should not give feedback if it is not requested or welcome:

The relationship may be endangered by your opinion.

Sharing feedback, even when it is extremely concise, concrete, and practical, still is an opinion shared. If the receiving end is not ready to receive this opinion, he or she might feel you have broken your neutral stance, and you risk losing this team member’s trust. You are basically pulling the person to where you are instead of meeting them where they are. You have decided they should grow, improve or change something that they may not be ready for.

You may stop someone in their growth

if the observation or growing edge indication was being worked on, but not ready yet. Imagine Leslie, who has taken on the role of Scrum Master for her team. She has started to facilitate retrospectives on her own, and although she seems to clearly love the role and work hard on finding the best way to help her team move forward, you know she could improve her listening skills. She interrupted a few times, where the discussion could have been richer and deeper if she had waited, reformulated, and asked for the underlying assumption of the opinions voiced. You want to bring it to her attention, and so you tell her; “Hi Leslie, great session today, I was wondering if I could share an observation on your active listening during the discussion today?”

Leslie listens to your observation, looks down, tells you she will do better next time. Next thing you know, Leslie has returned from HR, requested to go back to being a team member. What happened? What you didn’t know is that Leslie had been reading and practicing her active listening skills, and she had tried out a new technique but didn’t really work for her. She was well aware that she could have done better but was hoping to improve over time. When she realized everybody must have noticed what a failure her retrospective was, she lost confidence and stopped growing. Now, even when this is an extreme example, what we should take away from this is that unrequested feedback may actually freeze people in their growth, instead of pulling them forward.

You may hear; “No thank you, I am not interested!”

Which basically means that this person has the confidence to tell you that they are not ready, not in the right space, or worse, they do not value your opinion as expert in the field of their growth, which will invertedly cause your self-confidence to take a little dip.

So then, how do I as Agile coach help people move in the right direction, if I cannot give feedback?

OK, simple. You are a coach, trainer and team coach, and also a mentor for the team!

Every starting (or re-starting) agile coach needs to start with a discussion on how we work together, How can I best help you grow, improve, evolve? This must include a discussion on feedback.

Explain how you work, you are available to observe and help a person improve on points they are ready for. Work out a mentoring schedule in which you define the goals for each observation, and then when you are observing, then focus on that point only. If you are noticing something else that turns out to work extremely well or really needs to urgently be worked on, check if the person is ready to learn!

Also make sure you are the right person to give the feedback, and feedback must always come from a respectful space, mindful about how this affects the receiver and careful not to stops someone in their tracks.

OK, so HOW to give feedback so that it lands.

First off, ask what the person thought they did well.

People have the tendency to focus on the bad stuff, it is a basic instinct to see what went wrong and adapt to group standards. Usually, the person giving themselves feedback will be harsher on themselves than you would ever be. By insisting they explain to you what they thought they did well, you are teaching them to trust you with their observations and that you value their opinion to. Also, if the mentee explains that they did something great, but you know they could have done better avoid mentioning that now. This is not the time. Creating a safe space is your first priority.

Then reflect back what you have heard. Celebrate learning and growth by acknowledging the great things that they experienced.

If you do not agree with the positive observation, feed the observation back, celebrate what you DO agree with and ask if it would be helpful to explore something they said as you believe there may be a learning point they haven’t seen yet, or an observation they may have missed.

After you have celebrated the great stuff, time for some feedback.

First check if you are giving feedback on something, they already figured out by themselves by asking what they would have done differently in hindsight!

People most of the time will notice when an experiment didn’t work, or when the question they asked didn’t have the right effect, or they just realize that the discussion did not reach the desired outcome, and they want to work on reaching that goal in a facilitated session better.

If what the mentee tells you, connects with your observations, ask if they want to hear what you observed. There is nothing wrong with you partnering with the mentee by simply checking every time if this is helpful. There is no shame in respecting people in their journeys and giving them the power and trust that they can handle their own growth.

Allowing people to give themselves feedback is so much more powerful than you giving it to them. First of all, giving yourself feedback doesn’t hurt as much as receiving it from someone else. Actually, giving yourself feedback usually feels good as your brain recognizes that you are learning and thus realizes you are improving your social status (SCARF model) which feels great. The mentee also feels autonomous in their learning and has trust that the relationship with you and the team will get stronger because they have learned something important that will serve them all.

What is the right formula for landing the feedback?

When you want to offer an observation that the mentee has not yet realized, but is welcome and important for their next step in their growth try this:

1) Describe the situation in a short and concise way, be specific and try to mention the details of the interactions.

2) Describe the action of the mentee, be as objective as you can, and leave room for misinterpretation by saying “I recall that, I think I heard you say… I thought I saw you…”

3) Describe how this influenced the outcome (result of the action) by formulating an objective observation.

4) Then, ask what would have been helpful in this situation (What could have been done differently)

5) Share your observation, idea, input, opinion

6) then ask a follow up question; “How would this change the outcome” to really make sure the learning sticks.

7) Then ask the coachee how they will apply their learning for future improvement?

8) Close the session in a meaningful way

Giving feedback, or sharing an observation with a mentee:

Coach: “After the team had decided on an action item, you asked the team to come up with next steps to realize the action within the next sprint. Tom started talking about a different action the team could take, and also came up with next steps for executing an experiment. I remember at that time you said “What an interesting idea Tom!” The team started debating this new idea instead of finishing the action plan for the other item they had agreed upon. (1). You asked the team what they thought of the idea (2) and the team were happy to discuss the new item as well. When the event was over, the team finished ending up with two half finished items, for which the action plans may need more time to work out before they will be completed in the sprint. (3)

Mentee: Yes, this is true. I felt a bit embarrassed to jump in because Tom’s idea was really good and it will help the team improve their technical skill a lot. I wasn’t sure how to react in this situation. I get that now we risk not finishing the action items at all and will probably have to wait to next retrospective to deal with the issues.

Coach: What do you think you could have done that would have been helpful for the team, when Tom gave his idea?”(4)

I think I should have listened to Tom’s, and then proposed to keep this for the next retrospective as we already had decided on our action item, and finishing this one will also improve the team’s way of working a lot.

Coach: Hmm, yes, If you had done this, how would the team have closed the retrospective? (6)

Probably happy about having achieved at really getting an action plan together that serves the team. Also perhaps excited that they already know what they might be working on next time, but realizing they are focused on one item at the time, because they are so busy!

Coach: That is brilliant, can I offer a little observation to take your idea a step further? (5)

Mentee: Sure!

Coach: When you are facilitating, you are holding the team’s agenda, but that doesn’t mean it is set in stone. Something you can do in a situation like this, is partner with the team and ask them if your proposition is the right one. Then you allow the team to really own what is being decided in the session.

Mentee: Hmm, makes sense… What if they had said the rather focus on the new idea?

Coach: if everyone votes for the new idea, check with the team if this new idea is forwarding their agenda, and then, depending on the time, you can negotiate the time they want to spend on this new item, and move forward with it.

Mentee: That sounds really difficult to do. I am afraid I lose control over the process if I do that.

Coach: What would it look like to be able to do that AND hold the team’s agenda at the same time, (not losing control) what would you be doing differently, and what would change in the team? (6)

Mentee: Hmm… I would be flexible, I would also be prepared for this to happen actually, so perhaps have time “ up my sleeve” a bit for the unexpected… The team would be really walking out of the session feeling happy they worked on something they felt was most valuable for their needs.. that is for sure!

Coach: What would help you partner more with the team, holding that “flexible” process without losing the agenda and reaching the end goal with the team? (7)

Mentee: I would need to better prepare the meeting, set time aside and perhaps have a look at the script.

Coach: How can you bring your learning forward now? (7)

Mentee: Can I show you my script before the session, and you tell me what you think?

Coach: My pleasure. Are you ready to close? (8)

Mentee: Yes, I think I really like facilitating events with the team. Helping them getting it right gives my tons of energy!

Coach: I can see that, well done! (8)

How about you? Are you ready to take you learning forward?

Picture of Natascha Speets
Natascha Speets

Natascha is always on the looking for opportunities to help her clients become the best version of themselves. She does this by integrating her professional coaching skills in everything she does.

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