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.


canstockphoto6447088“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

That’s what I think anyway.  What do you think?


Filed under Coaching, communication, Human Resources, Performance Management

6 responses to “Feedback…Criticism or Opportunity?

  1. Well said, Gwyn! I agree…feedback is an opportunity. I would even go a little further to say it can also be a gift! Sometimes we just don’t know it in the moment since it takes time to let go of the sting and see the opportunity or gift feedback presents to us.

  2. stephenjohnmurnane

    Great post! I’ve struggled with this for a long time. Particularly the negative feedback. I was always the type to skip reading through feedback on my assignments. I would just feel embarrassed, frustrated, or outright murderous! (deep breath)

    But I’ve been learning to embrace feedback this year – and my work is only getting better, and my marks skyrocketing.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Stephen ~ Thanks for being so candid. You know, we all struggle with what to do with negative feedback. I’ve found that in every piece of negative information I receive about myself, I don’t have to accept it all but I must trust that there is at least a nugget of truth somewhere in there and then do something with that. I applaud you for sticking with it and congratulate you on the success it is bringing you.

  3. I agree whole heartily that it’s a two way street. I just encountered this. My supervisor was sharing some concerns with me that I took in a not-quite-so-positive way and ended up challenging her with a counter argument. I ended up feeling better because I stood up to her and she felt defensive because she had meant well and wasn’t understanding why I was challenging her. I wonder if she had had the conversation in her head with me giving the responses SHE thought were appropriate and when I didn’t in real life, things went off the rails a bit. I know I’ve been in that spot once or twice over the years.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Jack ~ Yes, sometimes when people give us feedback they don’t necessarily expect to be challenged about it. I believe, if it comes from a well-intentioned place there is possibly something to learn there, even if we don’t fully agree with what we hear about ourselves. I think we also must balance standing our ground about an issue with the possibility that there is opportunity for growth and change somewhere in all of the emotion of it. The main point of your comment to me is that you chose to participate in the proceedings. It not only inspired you to think but also gave your supervisor something to think about as well. And to me, that’s called a good conversation. Thanks for sharing your story and for taking the time to tell it here. 🙂

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