Feeding back on feedback

Across my management and leadership experience, it’s often the simplest concepts that have had the greatest impact.  Feedback is one of these, and while we all know the term, there’s much inconsistency in how it is given, received and used.

What is feedback?

Feedback is everywhere.  From a simple, “if I touch that, it’s hot!”, through to reports, satisfaction surveys, coaching, and more.  At its most basic, feedback is a response to action that gives an actor information about the result and therefore gifts an opportunity to learn and adapt.

If you’ve ever read a sports car review, feedback is important there.  A ‘drivers’ car is one that gives you clear and immediate feedback about what is happening – you can feel the wheels, the surface, and are connected to the experience.  And that makes sense; if you’re hurtling around a corner at 70mph you need to know when you’re starting to lose grip, not sometime after you’ve crashed into a tree.

In a team, we may not be doing 70mph, but we are handling often complicated and complex tasks, we are collaborating, engaging, planning, we are learning and developing.  It should follow then that giving and receiving feedback is a habit that we are grateful for: it might just help us avoid a tree (hit a target, win the prize etc.).

My experience with feedback is inconsistent:  for some leaders, giving feedback is an engrained habit, and they welcome feedback on themselves in equal measure.  At the same time many other leaders share only sporadic feedback, share a limited type (often negative), or deliver the message in a poor way.

Six Common Pitfalls

I’ve made mistakes giving feedback in my career and have seen and felt the impact receiving poor feedback myself and to others.  All of these will impact relationships between leaders, colleagues and teams, and doing that will impact performance.  Guaranteed.

1. Delayed feedback. “I can’t remember doing that”

Holding feedback for days/weeks/more (perhaps waiting for a 1-2-1, appraisal, etc) distances the action/behaviour with the feedback.  Can either be forgotten or makes the feedback appear unimportant.

2. All positive feedback. “Wow, I must be awesome!”

If only the things we do right are called out, we lose an opportunity to learn from others.  We all need course correction sometimes; the world around us changes after all.

3. All critical feedback. “I only talk to the boss when something goes wrong ☹”

Critical feedback can be very motivational, but without any let up and a focus on compliance will cause the opposite – disengagement, fear and defeat.

4. Vague feedback. “I think I’m doing the right thing”

If we want feedback for learning and adaption, what can we do with vague input?  “You’re really good at your job!”, or “be more professional!” aren’t actionable.

5. Inconsiderate feedback. “I’m in hospital, you want to tell me what?”

Poorly timed based on the recipient’s position, interrupting important work or insensitive to emotional state.

6. Feedback is one-size. “New email:  Performance Feedback Form”

People aren’t the same, and they don’t want feedback delivered in the same way.  If you’re giving feedback to someone who prefers data, talking about the personal impact won’t land and so on.

A brief word on positive and critical feedback

There are lots of studies that cite the psychological benefits for delivering positive feedback over negative feedback, and just as many that describe the opposite.  Looking across studies reveals ideal ratios of good to bad feedback that range from 2:1 through to 6:1, with others that suggest 75% of people want critical feedback in preference to anything positive[1].

I’ve concluded that there’s just not a formula for this, and most it’s more important to balance and adjust based on the environment you’re in and the results you get.  A colleague I work with talks about “earning the right to be critical” which I do agree with.  Have you supported, encouraged and taught enough to be critical?

Finally, if you’re not sure whether it’s working, ask for feedback from your colleagues or team!

Advice for giving feedback

  1. Giving regular feedback to your team needs to become a habit:
    • Set a reminder to dedicate time to this daily
    • Keep a (brief) record so you can see statistically how you’re doing
  2. Give feedback as promptly as possible
  3. Favour positive feedback over critical (doubly-so new starters: this builds confidence and early value)
  4. Feedback in this order of preference: face-to-face, phone, email/message
  5. Avoid giving any critical feedback other than face-to-face
  6. Make your feedback specific. What was it that the person did (not) do?
  7. Consider your audience and make it relevant to their personality. It will land better.

Going further

Some thoughts to get you further if you’re keen to establish a feedback culture; an environment where feedback is common, open and objective.

  1. Learn some coaching methods (courses and trained coaches are readily available)
  2. Teach your teams coaching methods for feedback to each other and you
  3. Regularly invite feedback from your own teams, your peers and leadership (some HR departments may already organise 360 feedback sessions which may be suitable, but often isn’t regular)
  4. Update how feedback is given formally in your company. Annual appraisals are not valuable in this – much better a system that allows constant, immediate, ‘micro’ feedback from anyone.
  5. Get feedback on how your approach(es) to feedback are working


[1] Some examples of good/bad feedback ratios and approaches:



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