Can you handle the truth?

5 May 2015

freedigital40920-20140630despairfeedback“When someone says would I mind if they gave me some feedback, my hackles automatically go up and I am on the defensive before they open their mouth.”  

“I fully embrace feedback and have learnt to not be precious at all about what others might tell me.”

“I am much more fond of informal, unsought feedback for an honest opinion.”

On a feedback spectrum, where would you sit comfortably?

If it’s your job to give feedback, perhaps these comments will change your own views and delivery.

Feedback = “The return of a portion of the output of a process or system to the input, especially when used to maintain performance or to control a system or process.” (

Feedback is a key component of the communication process. It’s how we measure the success of message delivery and of shared meaning.

American electrical engineer and inventor Harold Black described the difference between positive and negative feedback like this:

Positive feed-back increases the gain of the amplifier, negative feed-back reduces it.

His paper, published in 1934, wasn’t referring to interpersonal communication feedback but it’s apt, don’t you think?

I canvassed some colleagues about their willingness or otherwise to give and receive feedback. Here’s what I learnt from the responders, comprising a balance of males and females working in diverse occupations and industries.

Receiving feedback

One third said they welcomed feedback.

“If I am doing something that is not working, I want to know about it as soon as possible so I can rectify,” said engineer-turned-author and mentor, Becky Paroz. 

One third said they dread feedback, citing previous bad experiences on the receiving end as the main reason. One colleague (let’s call her Ms Anonymous) offered this view:

“I don’t think I need someone else to tell me what I already know – I am my own worst feedback critic, and the hardest critic of myself I know.”

One third said they actively seek and accept feedback (“Self-evaluation only gets you so far”), albeit sometimes finding it “a little nerve racking”.

Giving feedback

Half said they gave feedback willingly if asked, if they wanted to compliment someone’s efforts, or if it would prompt change to avoid a bad outcome.

“Feedback is similar to advice.  No one really wants it unless they asked for it and they reserve the right to ignore it if it doesn’t work for them.”

“If I believe someone has done a good job or done well in something, I will simply tell them so.”

“I think I have a bit of school teacher in me.”

“If you don’t deal with a situation then it has a tendency to snowball and divert people from being able to achieve.”

The other half said reluctance to provide feedback unless pressed was (again) based on previous negative experiences and most often related to formal performance reviews.

“Employees can react badly to ‘negative’ and ‘constructive criticism’ in this environment if not handled expertly. This can often have the reverse result to what the manager intended,” explained Ms Anonymous.

“When I do provide constructive feedback I try to frame it in development/solution focused terms, because I am conscious of hurting people’s feelings,” said OD Consulting’s  Leadership Trainer, Korrine Jones.

Positive or Negative?

‘Spontaneous’ and ‘unsolicited’ were common themes for positive feedback experiences. Several respondents referred to profound impacts of feedback given early in their careers.

Photographer and designer Phil Sheen said, “I received great feedback once from someone who forced me to think bigger than what I was prepared to do at that stage. It changed everything.”

Who’s giving the feedback can also colour the experience. “Generally, the more I respect someone the more welcome their feedback is,” said Jennifer Howe, National Relationships Manager at leading career development advisors Trevor-Roberts.

“Sometimes the truth hurts but if the feedback comes from someone you respect, admire, care about or have a working relationship with or whose opinion you value then it is always worth considering their point of view,” said graphic artist and marketing adviser Andrew Spark.

Here’s another perspective: “Sometimes feedback comes from a person who is threatened by you or what you are achieving, so it is rarely ‘constructive’ and more about them and their inadequacies.”

Then there’s the gender card, which Becky Paroz has seen played many times.

“I have often been asked to assist a male manager with providing feedback to a female employee because there’s the expectation of tears. There have been times when I have ended up being the ‘bad person’ for being involved in those scenarios.”

The delivery also influences how the feedback is received. Negative feedback without specific examples was cited as a barrier to acceptance. Another colleague (also wishing to remain anonymous) didn’t appreciate “a blasting from a consultant because he had been left stranded overseas and was feeling very ‘unloved’.”

However, my colleague conceded, this turned into a beneficial experience later: “After he calmed down we worked out a better support mechanism.”

The candour and content of my colleagues’ responses has confirmed for me thus:

  • Positive feedback is most appreciated when unsolicited and given spontaneously
  • Specific examples enhance understanding of negative feedback.
  • Lack of feedback doesn’t always mean lack of interest or satisfaction; it often says, “I’m not sure how you would take it so I’m holding back unless you ask.”
  • Proactively seeking feedback and initiating the conversation can sometimes overcome the sense of dread that grows when you’re waiting for it to catch up with you.
  • Who’s giving the feedback matters.

I also rather like this explanation of feedback:

“A feedback loop to control human behaviour involves four distinct stages.

1.  Evidence. A behavior must be measured, captured, and data stored.

2.  Relevance. The information must be relayed to the individual, not in the raw-data form in it was captured in, but in a context that makes it emotionally resonant.

3.  Consequence. The information must illuminate one or more paths ahead.

4.  Action. There must be a clear moment when the individual can recalibrate a behavior, make a choice, and act. Then that action is measured, and the feedback loop can run once more, every action stimulating new behaviors that inch the individual closer to their goals.”

[from Thomas, Goetz (19 June 2011). “Harnessing the power of Feedback Loops”Wired Magazine).]

I propose that this be the model we feed forward to help us handle the truth.

What do you think?

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