8 Essential Teambuilding Skills from a Former F16 Fighter Pilot

Everyone knows feedback is essential to creating a top team but so many people, both managers and employees alike, avoid it at all costs. Fear of feedback is a common reaction as criticism, even constructive criticism, has the tendency to trigger people’s natural fight or flight response. What happens when sharing feedback becomes a matter of life or death?

In an interview with Oscar Zoeteweij, former F16 Fighter Pilot for the Netherlands, he revealed eight essentials we should all learn about sharing great feedback.


The Ultimate Teamwork Training


While having a great team behind you is essential to success in any industry, to the F16 Fighter Pilot community it can cost you much more than a failed deal. Even if you’re alone in the cockpit, you always fly in teams with each member watching out for each other and communicating constantly. Having the ability to trust your teammates and speak up when there’s a problem is therefore an absolute necessity.


Zoeteweij explained that daily flight missions with the team were part of the rigorous training but the most valuable part was the debriefing at the end. During this 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. It was not only based on cognitive skills but also behavioral. The way you behave can be even more of a danger to others when flying at the speed of sound at 10,000 feet in the air. Being able to talk about this aspect is therefore crucial to the safety of your team.


These training practices meant that in the F16 community you’re learning everyday and getting better every day. According to Zoeteweij:


“In retrospect, one of the things that made us a top team was daily feedback. 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 F16 culture was that we could really tell people what they needed to hear and 5 minutes later we’d be at the bar having a beer together because it was a non personal issue.”


Having been part of this very open community, feedback became normalized into Zoeteweij’s professional and personal routine. Upon moving outside of his F-16 squadron he realized that this wasn’t necessarily the case elsewhere. Now working 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. Here are eight tips he shared with us:

1. What can you do when people take your feedback personally?


I’ve often thought about what makes this different in the F16 community. From what I’ve observed in the workplace there are two main reasons why people might not be taking your feedback well:


1. As a leader you have to create a sense of safety that feedback is worthwhile. Culturally in the F16 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.



2. 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.


2. What should people absolutely avoid?


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.


3. Are you a believer in the feedback sandwich (positive + constructive + positive feedback)?


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


4. 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.


5. How can you prepare people to receive feedback?


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 F16 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.

6. What’s the impact of continuous feedback on teams?


You’re able to create a learning culture. Moving from the F16 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.


But 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.


7. How can managers go about building an open feedback culture?


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 they’re about to say to someone else actually says about them. If you realize that you can normalize feedback.


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


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 behaviour.


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 towards and considered as thinking together and not seen as a (personal) threat.  


To learn more about how to use feedback to motivate, engage and develop your team check out our free eBook.



Photo by Hans Dorries on Unsplash