fighter planes in the sky
F-16 pilots know that giving and taking feedback can be a matter of life and death. So how do we translate that to the business world? PHOTO: Ant Rozetsky

Everyone knows feedback is essential to creating a top team. But many people, managers and employees alike, avoid feedback at all costs. Fear of feedback is common, because criticism, even constructive criticism, has the tendency to put people on the defensive.

But how does that dynamic change in situations where sharing feedback is a matter of life or death? One person who would know is Oscar Zoeteweij, a former F-16 fighter pilot for the Netherlands.

Pilots Get the Ultimate Teamwork Training

Having a great team of colleagues behind you is essential to success in any industry, but to a squad of jet fighter pilots, the support of your team determines much more than the success or failure of a business deal. Even if you’re alone in the cockpit, you always fly in teams with each member watching out for the others and communicating constantly. Knowing you can trust your teammates and speak up when there’s a problem is an absolute necessity.

Oscar Zoeteweij
Oscar Zoeteweij
Zoeteweij explained that daily flight missions with his team were part of a rigorous training regimen, but the most valuable part of the exercise was the debriefing at the end. During that time, everyone would share feedback about what went right and wrong and what each person could do better the next time. This was a daily professional practice in which participants assessed not only team members’ cognitive skills but also their behavior. The way you behave can be even more of a danger to others when flying at the sound of speed 10,000 feet in the air. Being able to talk honestly about peoples’ behavior was, therefore, crucial to the safety of the entire team.

Because of that training protocol, Zoeteweij said that he and his fellow pilots were learning and improving every day.

“In retrospect, one of the things that made us a top team was daily feedback,” he said. “Because we were used to interacting with each other on a daily basis, there were no games played — it was very open. The great thing about the F-16 culture was that we could really tell people what they needed to hear, and five minutes later we’d be at the bar having a beer together because it was a nonpersonal issue.”

Translating F-16 Culture to the Business World

Zoeteweij explained that because he had been part of that very open community, feedback became normalized into his professional and personal routine. After he left his F-16 squadron, he realized that people in other walks of life aren’t necessarily as receptive to open and honest feedback as he was. When he went to work in an office setting, he noticed that one of the fundamental differences between good and great teams is the ability to share feedback openly and honestly.

In an interview, Zoeteweij discussed tips for sharing great feedback.

What can you do when people take your feedback personally?

Zoeteweij: I have often thought about what makes this different in the F-16 community. From what I’ve observed in the workplace there are two main reasons why people might not be taking your feedback well.

First, as a leader, you have to create a sense of safety that feedback is worthwhile. Culturally in the F-16 operation unit it’s recognized that feedback is beneficial to the survival and success of the team. In aviation in general, if something goes wrong it’s a learning point, not something to burn somebody with. If you screw up, it’s expected that it will be called out so that you will know how it can be fixed. If you create an environment with that as the norm, then you get a culture where feedback is appreciated and personal backlash after giving constructive feedback has no place.

Second, most people don’t know what good feedback looks like. Though it’s often not intended by the feedback-giver, when feedback is formulated the wrong way it can actually have the opposite effect.

What should people absolutely avoid?

Zoeteweij: You should only give feedback about what you have actually seen with your eyes. It sounds so easy, but you’d be surprised how many people don’t do that. Only discussing facts and actions helps you to avoid making judgments, which is often the cause of badly received feedback.

Are you a believer in the feedback sandwich — positive feedback + constructive feedback + positive feedback?

Zoeteweij: It really depends on the relationship I have with that person. There’s no golden rule there. You have to look at the person and understand what works best for them. Most of the time, what I do is start by giving my general opinion. Then I say, “These are your strengths, and this is where you could improve. ”

When training a new pilot, what I would normally do is to start off telling them, “This is the general impression I have: You’re doing a good job.” Then people are more open to the things they can do to improve, instead of listening to hints that address my general view.

How do you give feedback when you’re angry?

An important thing to remember is that feedback says more about you than it does about the other person. If something happens and I’m angry about it, it says everything about my feelings and how I’m looking at the world. While a person’s actions may come across to you in one way, from their perspective the situation may be completely different. Once you realize this, you can talk about it without feeling angry because you realize it has everything to do with me and not the other person.

How can you prepare people to receive feedback?

Zoeteweij: Tell people up front what’s coming. When I’m new in a team I introduce myself in a personal way and explain what I think is most important for them to know about me. One thing is the influence being an F-16 pilot and, as a result, the impact feedback has had on the way I interact with others. Telling my story means they don’t have to make assumptions about me.

When I do give feedback, on for example what seems to me to be this person’s areas for improvement, I tell the other person that what I’m going to say may seem harsh but it’s meant to help them improve. This sets the stage preparing them for what’s about to come and emphasizing that it’s not meant to be taken personally.

What’s the impact of continuous feedback on teams?

Zoeteweij: You’re able to create a learning culture. Moving from the F-16 community to the workplace made me appreciate the way feedback really enhanced my learning agility. People learn so much faster and are ready for things so much sooner when they’re open to and getting feedback regularly. When each individual knows their strengths, it’s easier to connect people based on their different abilities and create strong teams.

Not only this, it also precludes people from holding back things that can later snowball into bigger tensions within the team. If you have the freedom to be open, the small things don’t have the chance to linger and grow.

How can managers go about building an open feedback culture?

Zoeteweij: Most people are not aware what feedback is and what it says about you as a person. This is the single most important thing because once these are in place giving feedback is far easier.

The most important way for managers to develop these skills is first to better understand what feedback means to them. Then they need to consider what the things they’re about to say to someone else actually say about them. If you realize that, you can normalize feedback.

Continuous feedback tools have emerged in the workplace to encourage people to give feedback more regularly to their peers, direct reports and managers. Do you think technology could help to normalize feedback in teams?

Zoeteweij: The good thing about using a feedback tool is that it creates a sense of normalization by making it an everyday common practice. In an environment where people aren’t used to sharing feedback, it won’t be there from one day to the other.

It’s a matter of creating a sense of safety so that people realize it’s OK to receive feedback from others. Using a tool lowers the barrier to giving feedback by prompting people to give each other a rating and some written feedback on a specific skill or behavior.

You have to build that trust step by step, but once you get to that point, you can go deeper with your feedback and start having fierce conversations with each other. Then you can reach that point where every type of conversation is aimed toward, and considered as, thinking together and not seen as a personal threat.