Feedback…Criticism or Opportunity?

Every once in a while, I like to get back to the basics.  The basics for me are always about people and how we relate to each other.  This post addresses giving and receiving feedback. I know, it is an old topic but I’ll stop talking about it when more of us get better at it. In the meantime, here it is…again.


“Feedback is the breakfast of Champions” or so says Ken Blanchard.But I’m wondering how many of us truly have an appetite for it.   After all, it has a way of feeling like bad news much of the time.

Why is that I wonder?  Well, first of all a very common view of feedback is this.  Feedback equals Criticism.

When I looked up the word criticism, here are some synonyms that greeted me…reprehend, censure, reprobate, condemn, denounce. Okay then, I can’t wait to get me some of that!

Often too, the experiences we have around performance management time can bring on an allergic reaction to feedback because, despite good intention, it is often delivered badly and received equally badly…a breakfast of champions complete with sour milk.

Perhaps, then, the task for all of us is to shift the perspective of feedback from one that equals criticism to one that equals opportunity.

So, where is the opportunity in both providing and receiving feedback?

For the Recipient there is opportunity:

for personal growth

We only see ourselves from the inside out.  The value of having others observe us and give us information about what they see helps us ‘round out’ our impression of ourselves.

to make positive change

Information about ourselves gives us a chance to make changes that have some personal meaning.  The hardest part about making change is the commitment it takes to sustain new behaviour.   Knowing why a change is important helps us to remain on course and raises the potential for experiencing positive results from our efforts.

For the Provider there is opportunity:

To build relationships that include trust

Feedback becomes a gift when it is presented sincerely and without judgment.  As well, when it is given as part of a conversation rather than a laundry list of things to fix, it is more palatable for the recipient and allows for deeper understanding on both sides.

To convey belief in the recipient’s capabilities & potential contribution

Giving feedback allows us to paint a picture of what we believe another is truly capable of and to shape our expectations around those beliefs.  If we simply demand a certain level of performance without inviting input or considering what people might need to make it possible, we will likely be met with resentment rather than interest.

Okay, so this might address some of the why for shifting a negative perspective of feedback to a more positive one (and there are doubtless more reasons for doing so as well) but it doesn’t speak to the how.  So here are a few thoughts on that:

As Providers of feedback, if we take the opportunity perspective we must:

Be clear about what we’re looking for

This means that if we are going to observe someone going about their work and then provide meaningful and useful information to them, both parties have to be focusing on the same things.  Feedback, after all, is comprised not of a single conversation but a series of conversations that lead to change and growth.

Make conversation and observation a daily habit

Sitting down with someone once a year to talk about performance and outcomes does not encourage an opportunity based perspective on feedback.  Instead, it becomes something one dreads.  Having daily conversations with people and making daily observations about their activities facilitates good and useful exchanges of information.

Avoid the “poop sandwich” approach

Who is not familiar with this?  Its starts with something positive; ends with something positive and then sandwiches the negative  you-know-what in between.  I personally don’t like this approach because it feels contrived.  And, by the way, no one is fooled by it.

As Recipients of feedback, in taking the opportunity perspective we must:

Participate in the conversation

In my experience, people who say nothing during a session that includes personal feedback can have plenty to say when the session is over, and to people who can only commiserate.  While this might feel good at the time, it really isn’t very helpful.  Participating in the conversation means asking questions.  It sometimes means disagreeing and challenging.  But it also means there is opportunity to understand as well as to be understood.  That alone has great value.

Take the view that feedback is as often positive as it is negative

Whenever someone says, “May I give you some feedback?”  It is tempting to say “Uh-Oh.  What have I done now?”

To be open to receiving feedback I think we must also do our best to wipe out the negative “tapes” that play between our ears about it.  In short, an open mind helps.

The truth is, these discussions are rarely easy.  They take thought, and work, by both parties.  And, because we have this tendency to equate feedback discussions with personal shortcoming, we avoid having them; wait to the last minute to have them; or rush through them in a way that does more harm than good.  I think shifting our perspective  away from criticism and toward opportunity might help

What do you think?


Filed under communication, Human Resources, Performance Management

21 responses to “Feedback…Criticism or Opportunity?

  1. Great post… “we don’t do a GOOD job at telling people they suck.” Something I say often in the USAF…intending to get folks to stop and stare at me (and sometimes have mean thoughts…for a second). Followed quickly by…we have to give feedback and help people get better … the only way to fix something is to know and acknowledge it is broke…personally feedback might hurt initially, but when it is done as you post… it is all about getting better. It takes time, thought, planning, and caring. This is probably why it is so hard to come by when folks are just so busy…but when done correctly it is indeed an investment and one that will pay dividends today, tomorrow and well into the future. Thank you so much for the excellent post.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Bill ~ Yes, getting quickly at something that isn’t working saves not only time but also some heartache down the road. I like to think too, that we can get to the place where the word “feedback” no longer strikes fear in the hearts of men and women. That means ensuring when we open our mouths to share our observations of, and experience with, people, it isn’t always about what they’re doing wrong.
      Thank you for sharing your thoughts and considerable experience here, and for your kind words too 🙂

  2. One of the best posts I have ever read Gwyn – and definitely the most useful, for all of us.
    I remember an ex-boss of mine who was keen on immediate feedback, which is a good thing in principle, except that in his case it was only negative criticism, so whenever he asked me to come to his office, I immediately knew I had done something wrong – at least in his eyes! As a result I wasn’t as receptive as I might have been in some circumstances.
    I do hope he reads this!
    Thanks again Gwyn.
    PS I also had a “sandwich” ex-boss too, which was almost as bad, except that I did at least know what I was doing right!

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Denise ~ Whenever someone says they find something I write useful, it makes the writing of it doubly worthwhile. Thank you for that. The message you reinforce here is the importance of achieving balance in delivering information to people about themselves. The ‘sandwich’ is not the way to go because it is contrived but it doesn’t take much time at all to observe something positive about someone and share it with them ‘in the moment’. If we do that often enough, the not-so-good stuff somehow becomes more believable not to mention more palatable.
      Thank you for coming by and for sharing your own experience with being on the receiving end of feedback.

  3. hey gwyn – love the phrase: “a breakfast of champions complete with sour milk.”!!! what a great sensory (yuck!) analogy! wonderful post – as always… vicki 🙂

  4. Great post, Gwyn! The shift from criticism to opportunity is key and you’ve expressed it beautifully. The leaders I coach have shown enormous growth when they get this and help the people they work with get it too. I’ve also been drawn to writing about feedback. A great, and often, misunderstood topic.

  5. Hi Gwyn – sage words as usual. I actually don’t mind the ” poop” sandwich too much. As one of your commentators said sometimes it’s the only time people hear anything good about themselves – at least they get 2 strikes. Regular conversations on performance are always valuable to achieve goals and any manager shouldn’t really need to ask for permission to give feedback to a direct report. The real challenge is giving negative feedback to someone who is a peer or other co-worker .

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Dorothy ~ That’s a good point. Giving feedback to direct reports is one thing. Sharing it with peers and bosses is a bit more of a sticky wicket..and one that is tolerated better when permission is granted. I think too, that success in sharing observations about others is far more palatable when trust and respect is earned first. When both are present, then feedback tends to be more positively received regardless of the level of person to whom you’re giving it.
      As for the “poop” sandwich, while I agree it is at least one way of hearing something good about ourselves, some managers are so obvious with their use of it, it can put into question the veracity of the ‘good stuff’ which kind of defeats the purpose.
      Thanks for adding your ‘two cents’ which, (figuratively speaking of course), is always worth at least a dollar 🙂

  6. Reblogged this on Accolade Communications and commented:
    Last year at this time I was finishing my second residence stay for the University of Guelph’s MA Leadership. The class was personal skills self-assessment and included a challenging component on feedback (including avoiding the “poop sandwich”). Gwyn, thank you for the reminder. The timing is uncanny and the lesson worth sharing widely.

  7. terry

    Hi Gwyn, I didn’t think I needed to read more information about feedback. However, the manner in which you wrote your article is exactly what I needed and the reason may surprise you! Over the last decade, I try to remind myself that criticism often provides the avenue to opportunities for + change. Now Dr Oz is talking to celebrities who are describing the hardships that led to their successes. Tyra Banks talked about bullying. Usually I think about feedback as an analytical process. However, this past week, I found myself exchanging feedback with a co-worker in a shouting match at the front desk. I try to keep a cordial relationship with the co-worker. However, she can “push my buttons” to promote herself and I usually withdraw to avoid the conflict. On this particular day, I returned from travel for a medical appt. So when she loudly started proclaiming my shortcomings, then giving me assignments that I know she won’t do, our conversation quickly rose to a crescendo witnessed by co-workers. I don’t recommend this practice and don’t know what the repercussions will be.
    Shrinking away from conflict and standing up to challenges both have physical and emotional consequences. However, I somehow feel more empowered by standing up to the challenge than by trying to avoid conflicts.
    When you expect sweet cream on cereal, sour milk leaves a bitter taste.
    In the right balance, sour milk, buttermilk, adds richness to sweet treats!

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Terry ~ Who among us has not engaged in a shouting match at some time or another? The trouble with them is that they are deeply upsetting and highly unproductive. I’m sorry you found yourself in such a position. It takes a lot of discipline to train ourselves not to rise to the bait dangled before us by a ‘button pusher’. But it’s something worth working on, not for their sakes but for our own. As you say, it is more empowering to face a challenge rather than avoid it. The trick is to do so in our own time and when we are in full control of our emotions. That’s the hard part.
      Thanks for sharing your experience here and best wishes for coming to a satisfying resolution.

  8. Pingback: Feedback…Criticism or Opportunity? | digitalNow |

  9. Having been brought up on Ken Blanchard’s “Gung Ho!” when working at a large UK supermarket, I had to chuckle at his “Breakfast of Champions” quote. While I feel that Blanchard’s works are a bit gimmicky, occasionally oddball, he does talk sense.

    When I first hit the workplace after college, I was extremely sensitive to improvement feedback/criticism. After a huge argument with a manager, I eventaully saw the light and, while I still now dislike feedback which isn’t entirely positive, I more readlly take it on board and act upon it appropriately. It is an opportunity and if you open your eyes to that, I can be a very useful tool.

    Looking back, I’m grateful to that manager; it means that I’ve mellowed to hearing what others think, and I think that I am a better person for it.

    Have to agree with your ‘poop’ sandwich comments. It is contrived and you know what’s about to come when you hear the positive followed by a “BUT”. Just get to the nitty gritty.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Matt ~ In truth, there are few people who are able to accept negative criticism without feeling an equal (or greater) measure of negative emotion. Kudos to you for sticking with it and for appreciating the value of things that are sometimes hard to hear.
      Thanks for sharing your experience here and for coming by!

  10. Frances Manning

    Hi Gwyn, I have just read & Tweeted about your blog. I particularly liked this post with it’s practical ideas. Thank you for sharing your thoughts for others to learn.
    Frances Manning

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Frances ~ Thank you very much. I’m so glad you have found something useful in my writing. It makes the writing of it worthwhile. 🙂

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