Giving and receiving constructive feedback is a critical skill set to develop in any work environment, but especially in team collaborations. A strong indicator of a healthy and supportive collaboration is that there is a process of some kind in place that allows any team member to give constructive feedback to any other member, whether directly or indirectly. The greatest strength of team collaborations is that many minds with different perspectives and priorities are working on the same problem, but in order to truly take advantage of that, communication and especially exchanging of constructive feedback needs to be prioritized. This article discusses strategies and considerations to keep in mind when both giving and receiving constructive feedback.
How to analyze power dynamics in a team context, and why this is important
An important element of any teamwork environment is the power dynamics that exist in the group between individuals. In this context, power includes the real or perceived ability to make and/or influence decisions regarding the project and/or the team members’ involvement, including deciding who joins and leaves the team, as well as a less well-defined ability to influence how the team or team lead(s) perceive a team member and their work. Power dynamics within a team can often influence people and events beyond the context of the team environment, particularly if you are likely to work with these collaborators in future teams, so it is always a good idea to pay attention to them. There are different sources for this power, some of which are relatively easy to identify and follow a clear structure while others can be invisible and difficult to define, but no less influential. An important characteristic of power dynamics is that they are often compounding; one individual on a team may have access to multiple sources of power, which can lead to significant imbalances and can be a fertile breeding ground for a toxic work environment. The most common power sources in any team, organized from most to least obvious, are institutional power, expert knowledge and/or seniority, access to resources and socially constructed identities.
How to approach supportive vs challenging team environments
It is inevitable that some team environments will be better working environments than others. Challenging team environments can manifest in different ways, but a common theme is that it takes more emotional and mental energy to navigate team interactions and accomplish tasks than in supportive team environments. Consequently, the priorities and skills that you choose to focus on in any team environment can be tailored based on whether it is generally a supportive or challenging environment.
First, you can always control how you approach working in that team, whether or not you have the power to affect or improve the team dynamics in any obvious way. If you find yourself in a supportive, healthy team, that is an excellent opportunity to practice improving your communications skills, asking clarifying questions about team processes and decision making, offering constructive feedback and ideas, and generally experimenting with how you work best in a team environment. Approach it as an opportunity to practice your teamwork and leadership (even if you aren’t in a formal position of leadership) skills, as well as whatever skills the project itself is giving you the chance to work on. Healthy teams can be excellent learning environments, and good opportunities to experiment with skill sets that you are less confident about.
Common issues that arise when key elements are missing and what to do about it
It is always helpful to look for gaps in the key elements of team collaboration first when seeking to solve or ameliorate confusion and conflicts in teams. Below I will discuss some common issues that arise if one of the key elements is missing or incompletely implemented, along with suggestions for how to address this lack from a position as a team member but not a team lead.
As a general rule, in a supportive team environment the first course of action for any of these would be to bring the lack of a key element up to your team lead(s) or supervisor(s) and ask them to address the lack, perhaps including offering suggestions for how to do that. However, this may be difficult or feel risky to do in some team environments, so the suggestions below are tailored towards a scenario where improving your own experience on the team is the goal, rather than improving all team members’ experiences. Part four, supportive vs. challenging teams, goes into greater depth about how to approach teams with different levels of health and support.