Feedback - how hard can it be

Feedback cycle graphic
Posted on: Tuesday 13, February 2018
Category: Thought Leadership

Feedback - how hard can it be?

All too often, managers and leaders struggle with how to deal with the thorny task of developmental or constructive feedback. So, this blog tackles the tricky skills of giving and taking critical feedback.

I recently posted - Is feedback like Marmite? (see link at end). That blog dealt with why feedback is so essential for us to grow and develop. It also covered more unusual forms of feedback such as praise-based feedback and it resonated with many readers.

I've teamed with Aubrey Wall, director of content development at Engineering Leadership Institute to help me out and co-write this practical skills-based blog. 

The good, the bad and the ugly

It's probably fair to state that, on the one hand, feedback gives us all unique opportunities as individuals to healthily mature, grow in self-awareness and develop as a person. That is because we cannot honestly see ourselves as others see us. I believe this holds true in teams as well, where good quality feedback helps teams to trust one another, cohere and develop. It’s a prerequisite too for high performance.

But, on the other hand, people find it very hard to give or take constructive, developmental feedback. For a lot of people, it's a tricky skill to master. That is because our brains are hardwired with built-in survival traits to defend ourselves from threat, protect us from harm and to avoid danger.

So, as a default, being on the receiving end of feedback often sparks off a very visceral chain-reaction of auto-response behaviours – it’s all part of our genetic makeup. 

The feedback reaction curve

The above diagram shows the reason why critical feedback packs such a punch setting off a chain of emotional reactions. (you may recognise similarities to Kubler-Ross’ grief curve).

Let’s go through the stages of the reaction curve one at a time:

Stage one - if you’re anything like me, even the word ‘feedback’ often kicks-off with an immediate twisting pain in the pit of one's tummy. Thud! That’s the shock piece that comes with receiving critical feedback along with a short-sharp-spike of adrenaline. And of course, the shock is genuine.

Stage two - as that reaction subsides our instinctive reactions now turn to denial, deflections or avoidance – it’s another defence response.

Stage three - sometime later and often upon further self-reflection or talking it through with someone else, anger or, resentment reactions then set-in.

Stage four - eventually, as anger washes out, acceptance can then follow on. But, only once the flood of these other emotions has run its course.

Sometimes people go back and forth re-experiencing these base-emotions several times before getting anywhere near acceptance. But, for most folk, getting to acceptance takes time. Sometimes this may take a few hours, or a day or two, sometimes much longer. We’ll come back to this again later on.

Some real stories

Although receiving critique is hard, I think we often learn a great deal from people willing to take the time and courage to give us the gift of constructive critical feedback when it matters most. Here are some examples:

Some time back I had some critique of my presenting style. While it stung at the time to have a blind spot exposed, I did pluck up the courage to make the suggested changes. It turned out that critique made all the difference to me to up my game. That move quickly led to other opportunities to open up and present themselves. Without that critical evaluation, I doubt if that door would have opened!

Aubrey (co-writer), as well as being a director is also is a serious athlete too. She trains hard for triathlons and Iron Man competitions. Aubrey picks up the story, 'After the end of one particular season of successes in triathlon, I found myself uninspired and unmotivated to re-kindle my excitement in the new season ahead of me. Despite, the encouragement that I was a strong, talented and a successful athlete now it didn't help at all - quite the reverse in fact. But my coach wisely reminded me that I should not let my successes cause me to lose sight of the reason why I do this sport in the first place. I realised that for me, I needed to put myself under pressure to get the best out of myself to compete. Thank goodness for the gift of constructive feedback.' (In sports critique is used extensively).

Finally, after a keynote event, where I had talked about the power of praise-based feedback, a manager came up to me and said that he only every uses constructive feedback on his sales team. He finds it motivates them to improve, strive to be better and drive them on to success. While this may be a bit one-sided it perhaps nevertheless makes the point about the power of critical feedback.

Courage, tact and grace

The above stories show us that we can learn new skills and attitudes and to grow and develop ourselves to be more proactive. That way we move beyond our basic survival instincts and defensive reactions towards better and more dynamic and mature choices.

But, for anyone to give constructive feedback does take courage, sometimes a good deal of courage, because we naturally may worry about its impact or, getting a negative response.  It also requires tact, honesty and respect. Likewise, it takes grace and maturity too to receive it and deal with it as well as to develop from it. But, it takes all of us time to develop these skills.

Nevertheless, the more we involve ourselves with feedback, the more capable, resilient, secure and happier we become. We also learn to accept and honour others around us for who they are, their contributions, their strengths and weaknesses too. That is undoubtedly true in high-performance teams where people take an active interest in hearing and seeing what others understand and then learn from it accordingly.

Importantly too, is to remember to be careful and considerate when addressing any constructive feedback. That is because we all see reality through our unique perceptions that ultimately taint and bias any feedback you provide. Therefore, you need to untangle our own biases and prejudices first to avoid judging others too quickly. Always consider grace.

Highly developed people often become feedback ‘junkies.’

Elegant feedback starts with a reliable process

To make constructive feedback a positive experience all round it is important to plan and prepare for these types of conversations. Also, during the feedback process, it’s useful to confront difficult messages early and to make sure they are clear.

Here’s a simple four-step process that works well to get going:

Step 1 - firstly, always start with the behaviour you want to address with another person. Do this clearly. Then, state the evidence - facts and observations you’ve noticed. Keep it short and simple. Remember – no put-downs. However, be prepared that people will naturally want to deny, deflect, avoid or justify their actions at this point. So, it’s essential that you don’t get trapped here. Remember critical feedback is about peoples’ learning, not a chance to get your own back or get even somehow - No! There’s no place for that.

Step 2 - it’s vital that you follow up by moving on to the actual impact of their behaviour by clearly stating how it makes you (and potentially others) feel. Do this from only your point of view and your feelings (not from what others say - that’s just gossip).

These two steps when done together are beneficial change agents. Done well, it often diffuses excuses and justifications that then lead to more positive outcomes.

Step 3 - once these two steps are understood, you can then proceed to agree on the desired outcome. That takes a few forms:

  • What are you going to do?
  • Shall we discuss and agree on a way forward?
  • This is what I want you to do!

Recognise though, that at this point people might need more time to process feedback they’ve just received. I pick up this point again in more detail in the mastering tips section below. So, if this is the case, always schedule a follow-up meeting to agree on the actions and how best to monitor progress (step 4).

Rookie tips

Along with the above process, here are some useful principles to be aware of to get you going:

Rookie tip #1- Feedback RAG. Never give feedback on a person’s values or beliefs. That's a Red light and means no-go!  You’ll end up in deep trouble and build up lasting resentment if you go there. The presupposition behind giving and taking feedback should always be about respecting the other person – and helping them with a blind spot.

Take care of giving feedback about a person’s attitudes or personality. That's an Amber light and needs handling with care and sensitivity.

However, the safe ground (Greenlight) is to explore the impacts of people’s behaviours – you’re good to go here.

Rookie tip # 2don’t get personal. Always focus on the behaviour never the person. Depersonalise the issue from the person. So, remember never to use put-downs when giving feedback on peoples’ behaviours. Remember to use tact, respect along with honesty.

Rookie tip #3 - buckets tend to spill. Choose what to base your feedback on wisely. Select the one piece that will make the most difference to help that person positively and stop there. The old adage, less is more applies well here.

More considered people may be able to deal with a handful of related pieces of feedback. But, personally, I would always avoid giving bucket loads of feedback as they tend to spill or leak out.

Mastering the tricky art of feedback - advanced tips

Here are some further tips from reader contributions. By all means, please feel free to continue to share your thoughts and I'll to add to this list:

  • As we've already mentioned, getting to acceptance follows a natural process. Therefore, gain the maturity to wait it out.  It takes the time it takes.
  • It's never easy to hear feedback either. Remember, the first stage of receiving feedback is shock. So, the supporting rationale that follows can easily get distorted, deleted, or just not heard – this is very common. Therefore, it is vital to be sensitive - critique of any sort is hard to take. So, honour the other person with your time and support during the feedback process and when necessary have follow-up discussions to ensure a complete understanding.
  • Some people will get to acceptance quickly and might be okay. But, beware that the process is the process, meaning that later they may well return to denial or anger phases again. Cycling up and down through various emotions is quite common before reaching acceptance. Remember too; some people may feel resentful and hold grudges for a long time. Other people take longer to develop and a few refuse to grow at all or, ever want to see things differently from other peoples’ points of view.
  • It’s useful to think of feedback as a gift. When receiving feedback it’s handy to remind yourself, ‘this feedback is a gift.’ And, always say, ‘thank you’ to the person who has dared to give it to you. High performing individuals take this to a whole new level and ask for feedback and opportunities to self-critique!
  • Remember to allow for and be sensitive to cultural differences in international teams. For starters, there are substantial cultural differences between Northern Europe, Asia and the US.
  • Giving and taking feedback is a critical soft-skills principle to learn and master, for executives, managers and leaders. So, getting feedback skills training is essential. Often working with a coach to deal with delicate and sensitive issues will advance your ongoing development and hone individual leadership skills.

Finally remember, there is no such thing as failure in life, only feedback and learning. And, we never stop learning from giving and taking feedback.

I hope this blog has been food for thought for you to read. If you would like further resources to help you learn and further develop you feedback skills, then please feel free to contact Aubrey or me.


[1,950 words]


Thanks once more to Aubrey Wall, director of the Engineering Leadership Institute for collaborating with me on this blog. It was a blast. 

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Other useful leadership blogs

Leadership - Who is Pulling Your Strings -Leadership development blog from Andrew Jenkins Leadership Development Consultant and Coach

High Performance Teams Fact or Fantasy - Blog Post

Look in the Mirror - That's Who is Standing in Your Way a blog from PDX Consultng leadership and team development experts

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Note on Graphics:

Header graphic my own created from creative commons use, apart from in top right window 1 - the OMG the woman in shock is influenced and adapted from on RF licence purchased ID 77550818 © Konstantin Omelchuk | (A suburb pop-artist).

Feedback window is 

Feedback process is mine.

Dilbert cartoon strip is creative commons use

All graphics above will only be used in blogs and not used for direct commercial use.

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