How to set high standards on your team

#56, Apr 11, 2024

Once upon a time, in a tech org not far away, there was a leader…

A tech manager and his team has been facing poor results for the past year and a half. The tech manager tried different management approaches, from granting the team complete autonomy to closely micromanaging their tasks. Despite these efforts, the situation did not improve.

The manager consistently provided the team with negative feedback, highlighting their performance issues and the need for improvement. Although recognizing the team’s strengths in some areas, the focus remained on their shortcomings, based on the belief that it’s crucial to address problems directly without sugarcoating.

However, the team believed the decline in performance was due to factors beyond their control and felt demoralized by the constant focus on negatives. This led to a deadlock, leaving the tech manager to question whether solely providing negative feedback was the right approach and ponder what could be done differently to enhance the team’s performance.

Hi 🙂 Hari here.

/* I started writing today’s tale late in the week – on a Thursday morning. On Tuesday we did a training on assertiveness and yesterday we started coaching a new team, so I didn’t have the energy to start before. But now, having already drunk my morning coffee, sitting in the kitchen with the sun glowing in my eyes, I’m listening to and writing this to you */

Today’s tale is focused on how to properly set high standards on your team.

What will happen if you don’t have high standards on your team?

Low standards lead to low responsibility on your team.
Low responsibility lead to poor results.

If you wonder why people on your team don’t hold each other accountable – most likely, it’s because they don’t have a clear high standard to refer to.If you feel people are doing the bare minimum, if they are relaxed or apathetic – it could be caused by a low standard.

/* Responsibility is one of the 9 core elements of a strong dev team. That’s why when assessing team dynamics with the TReE Team Scan tool, we look into whether the team has a high standard or not */

An important note before we dive in: having a high standard and having great team climate are not two opposites on a scale. They are actually on two separate axes and form 4 team zones your team might be in.

I regularly share tips on how to have high psychological safety on your team. That’s one of the axes. Today, I’ll focus on the other axis.

How giving feedback could go wrong

Going back to today’s tale, the tech manager had all the great intentions.

He wanted to give guidance.
He wanted to set high standards.
He wanted the team to achieve amazing results.

But what he did wrong is what I’ve seen many leaders in tech do wrong:
❌ he gave almost exclusively negative feedback (“no news is good news” )
❌ he did not align expectations properly (what’s a good result)
❌ he challenged the team on the wrong things (external future outcomes)

Giving feedback is a great tool for setting a high standard.
But it’s great when it’s done right.

How to set high standards without breaking your people

What I’d do differently:

✅ Keep a 5:1 ratio for positive-to-negative feedback

There are different research findings on this – you could see 4:1 ratio or 6:1 ratio; most often the golden ratio mentioned is 5:1. But the key principle remains: when the positive feedback is significantly greater than the negative feedback, you’ll have positive relationships with your people, they’ll be more engaged and will have more clarity.It’s crucial to give negative feedback.

But when people do something right: give them the positive feedback.
Tell them why their behavior or their work is great.

✅ Focus your feedback on their behavior or work quality, not your expectations on future external outcomes

What I haven’t told you about today’s tale is that the tech manager wanted his team to deliver a result that would get traction in a certain market. The manager had some KPIs in mind and the results were not good. That’s why he was annoyed.The issue here though is that the team did everything right in terms of delivering the expected work. They put the effort. They produced the required quality. But the result did not achieve the expected outcome.

To give an analogy: a songwriter might put all the effort into making a hit. The quality could be great. But if the song does not hit the charts – you can’t blame them. You try to understand why, you learn and try again.

That’s why you should give feedback on what people can control.
And treat the rest as an experiment.

/* something related that popped up in my head: read the 5 key elements to a successful experiment Vasi wrote about in our other newsletter */

✅ Define and refer to team agreements

Holding people accountable when there’s no agreement leads to unhealthy conflicts.

That’s why it’s crucial to align each other and define expectations: how should your people behave and what’s the quality of work you’re looking for.

In today’s tale, there was a huge misalignment between the team’s and the manager’s expectations.

/* a simple way to align expectations and achieve clarity is using The Gray Area tool */

Once you have this set, you can refer to team agreements when giving feedback. Again, don’t do this for negative stuff only. When someone follows the agreements or have matched the bar you’ve set: congratulate them and give them the positive feedback.

/* there are a ton of great tips for giving feedback you can browse in the Soft Skills Pills library */

✅ Overcommunicate your agreements and standards using team slang

The moment you’re sick and tired of repeating a message is the moment people start listening.For every decision, for every feedback – you should communicate the why.
And the easiest way to do that is having words & phrases that act like a shortcut to the why. A team jargon.

For example, our team follows the 80/20 principle for quality. We are something like quality freaks, so our default state is 100% or above. That’s why we want to balance ourselves – to deliver quality stuff, but don’t try to achieve perfection, as it will be a waste.

When we review our stuff, you could hear someone saying “For me, this is not even close to 60…” and then continue with the feedback on how to improve the quality.

Or other times, when someone is taking too long on a task and we see the current result, we might say “That’s way over 100 already! Let’s ship it like that.”

If you join our team, and we haven’t explained these numbers or the 80/20 principle, you’ll not understand it. That’s why it’s a team-specific slang.

But this slang allows us to quickly remind us of our team agreements.
They are communication shortcuts that just fit into our day-to-day conversations and don’t sound artificial.

And having daily conversations on your agreements will make these agreements stick. When these agreements are related to the high standard, people will have a clear understanding and will more easily follow it.

How to set high standards on your team
(the checklist)

  1. Keep a 5:1 ratio for positive-to-negative feedback to have engaged people who want to follow the performance standards
  2. Focus your feedback on their behavior or work quality, not on your expectations on future external outcomes
  3. Define clear team agreements to set expectations
  4. Overcommunicate your team agreements so that people have a clear understanding
  5. Refer to team agreements using team slang as communication shortcuts, to make them stick

… and the team lived happily ever after.

Get a leader's tale

leadership insights
directly in your inbox!

Learn more...