Feedback: A dirty Word?

2 people sitting across from one another discussing something
Giving or receiving feedback isn’t always the most comfortable of situations, but it is something employees want. Being a good leader and coach requires you to check in with your team and let them know how they’re doing, especially when working remote and social interactions aren’t as frequent. In simple terms, feedback is information that one person believes will be helpful to another person. The way we approach feedback has changed in recent years. Not only is the term “feedback” now discouraged, the concept has changed from a technical solution to an adaptive, ongoing process.

What We Know

1. Employees fear, yet want and need feedback.

2. Most training is focused on the giver of feedback, not the receiver.

3. No matter how skilled a feedback giver is, the receiver determines the outcome.

Although feedback is crucial for people to grow, be successful, and manage their working relationships, it is inherently stressful for both the giver and receiver. Feedback conversations provoke strong emotions and trigger defensiveness. Our brains are not wired for it – especially receiving feedback. Data shows that the stress involved in receiving feedback can make the situation counterproductive and may even cause a decrease in performance.

“Six of the scariest words in the English language are: ‘Can I give you some feedback?’” – Ed Batista

We Can’t Ignore Emotions

The prescribed steps in the classic model of feedback no longer suffice. We need to go on the assumption there is fear built in and we need to practice an adaptive process that manages those emotions. Even if the giver focuses on the other person’s behavior instead of the person or the attitude, the receiver still experiences psychological triggers that cause them to feel threatened. Giving feedback is also challenging and uncomfortable. As a result, there is a tendency to avoid feedback.

Be Mindful of the Social Threat

The name you give this practice is critical. A quick google search for synonyms of the word feedback yields strong negative words like criticism, rebuttal, retaliation, and accusation. Instead of using the word ‘feedback’ when naming the conversation or meeting, choose words that describe your intent; for example: discuss progress or open a dialogue.

Let go of the old terms ‘negative’ and ‘positive’ feedback. Those terms came from the original scientific theory of feedback and do not translate well to management theory. Think of feedback as either reinforcing or corrective. Both are beneficial and both are necessary. Research shows that a person should receive 7 reinforcing conversations for every corrective conversation. (Read our next post to learn more about reinforcing and corrective feedback.)

If feedback conversations are frequent, informal, and nonthreatening, and the receiver is receptive, Then the feedback is more likely to be mutually beneficial.

Make Giving and Receiving Feedback a Required Skill

There are things that can be done individually and throughout your organization to make feedback conversations less stressful and more effective. Designate ‘giving and receiving feedback’ as a required skill. Encourage leaders to have regular, routine conversations where they give and receive feedback. Train all managers and supervisors how to communicate feedback effectively. In addition, educate all employees how to receive feedback.

Questions to Deepen Thinking?

· What are the consequences when feedback doesn’t go well?

· What will changing your approach to feedback get you?

· If you don’t develop your feedback skills, what could happen?


Learn more about S&W Leadership Coaching!


Credits: Batista, E. (2013, December). Building a feedback-rich culture. Batista, E. (2015, February). Make getting feedback less stressful. Harvard Business Review. Beatty, R. (2015). Feedback: Navigating for individual and organizational effectiveness. Talent Quarterly(5), 51-56. Boyatzis, R. & McKee, A. (2005) Resonant Leadership: Renewing Yourself and Connecting with Others Through Mindfulness, Hope, and Compassion. Harvard Business School Press. DiNisi, A. S. (2015). Does feedback really work? Talent Quarterly(5), 45-49. Heen, S. &. (2015).
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