When Giving Feedback Goes Wrong

by David Creelman | Posted | Performance Management

When Giving Feedback Goes Wrong

It's natural to want a culture of feedback. Everyone agrees that a culture of feedback would be a good thing. So why is it so hard to do?

Well, for starters, sometimes feedback doesn't land in the right way with the recipient. You don't need to be Sigmund Freud to understand the motivations that stand in the way of a culture of feedback. Feedback can make people feel bad; as a result, we are, quite rightly, hesitant to ask for it and hesitant to give it.

Even simple, accurate, helpful feedback can go wrong. Imagine someone has worked all weekend to produce an urgent report. They ask for feedback and you say, "Oh, I see you misspelled 'chrysanthemum' on the first page." Perhaps they'll respond with gratitude, but more likely they'll say, "I work all weekend on this stupid report, and all you can tell me is that I misspelled the name of the flower?"

If we want a culture of feedback, we first have to face up to the potent fact that feedback can go wrong in many different ways. We need to communicate that these missteps exist, acknowledge that they can be serious and provide practical advice for getting feedback right.

Feedback can go horribly wrong. Here's how to do it right!
Tweet this

Advice from feedback experts

Fortunately, there are several very good sources of advice on how to structure feedback so that it doesn't go badly. In his book, The Coaching Habit, Michael Bungay Stanier advises managers not to give advice at all, but just ask questions instead. If someone were to ask for feedback on a report, Bungay Stanier would suggest asking questions such as "Okay, what's specifically on your mind?" followed by "And what else?" and then perhaps moving into "What's the real challenge for you here?" The trick is that you help the person find their own way; and if you do get to the point where they ask for something specific such as "I need someone to check for spelling errors," then you are well positioned to give the feedback they want.

Another great approach to giving feedback comes from Marshall Goldsmith in his 16-page graphic book Feedforward. Goldsmith's core ideas include the notion people don't want unsolicited feedback so it needs to start with a request such as "I'd like some feedback on how I'm handling my sales calls." Another core idea is that people can't change the past, so you shouldn't give "feed-back" (about the past), you should give '"feed-forward" about the future. Instead of saying "These are all the things you did wrong in the sales call last week" (something the person can't change), you should say "Here's something you should try in your next sales call."

Goldsmith also includes a stunningly brilliant formula for what a person should say after receiving feedback: they should say, "Thank you." That's it. No, "Well that wouldn't work because..." or "That isn't a good idea..." simply say, "Thank you." Later, the receiver can do what they like with the advice.

If you want something deeper, check out Edgar Schein's book Helping. Schein says that when you help someone you put them in a "one down" position because it can seem as if you are smarter than them or that they now owe you something for your help. This slim book contains a lot of advice, but the starting point in any feedback situation is to begin with what Schein calls "humble inquiry." Don't jump to giving advice. Instead, assume you don't fully understand the situation and ask questions so that you, and the person who asked for feedback, find your way to something that genuinely is helpful.

How to implement this expert feedback on giving feedback

The great thing about the advice of Bungay Stanier, Goldsmith and Schein is that it's all relatively formulaic; an employee can learn to follow the script. They need to receive some kind of initial training, but the takeaway is a script they can have on a little card they keep under their keyboard or can easily access online.

Once you have trained people how to ask for and receive feedback so that it doesn't go off the rails, then you can then start by promoting the concept of a culture of feedback. You'll want to promote the concept through the usual communication channels at your organizations. You'll also want to look at HR technologies, often implemented on mobile devices, that enable people to request feedback from their managers and peers; and remind managers who are not giving feedback to create circumstances where it will be requested.

Make great feedback happen

Getting feedback right is tough. The reason companies struggle to create a culture of feedback is that they don't face up to the fact that giving feedback will have negative outcomes if it's not done well. Before you start promoting a culture of feedback, you need to train employees on how to give and receive it. Luckily, the techniques for effective feedback conversations are not complex. On the other hand, these techniques can be hard to execute consistently because we fall into old habits of giving unwanted advice, so people need occasional reminders to give feedback the right way. Once you have the basic knowledge in place, you can promote a culture of feedback within your company with the assistance of helpful technologies.

Take the 30-day Feedback Challenge

This challenge is a great way to make feedback and recognition a part of daily life in your organization


Take the Challenge
Cover of the book
Cover of the book

Take the 30-day Feedback Challenge

This challenge is a great way to make feedback and recognition a part of daily life in your organization


Take the Challenge


Related Articles


Close [x]

Get our Saba Blog Digest email delivered right to your inbox.

Join over 100,000 of your HR peers: