The Paradox of Feedback

Recently I’ve been involved in facilitating a leadership programme in an organisation, which has included a whole section on how to give effective feedback, as well as looking at the pitfalls and challenges inherent in the feedback process. We started the discussion off by asking for the group’s reactions to the question

“Can I give you some feedback?”

The responses to that question were, invariably, defensive and guarded, experience telling us that the question usually meant we were about to be told what we’d done wrong or how we could have done something better – and I’d invite you to stop reading for a moment and consider your own emotional reaction when that question has been put to you!

As part of our Cutting Edge Membership Group, we have also been exploring the role that feedback plays in coaching conversations, referencing the Association for Coaching Core Competency 5: Communicating Effectively , which includes an indicator stating that the coach ‘provides relevant information and feedback to serve the client’s learning and goals’.

And recently in our Trusted Leader Coach Training programme we invited participants to practice giving and receiving feedback in observed coaching trios. We use the principle of www.ebi (what went well/even better if) to frame how they share what they notice. After the exercise, their feedback on that process itself was illuminating, most of them expressing how valuable and refreshing it was to give and receive in this way – and these are all experienced leaders and managers for whom giving feedback is a part of their daily role.


So, what is it about feedback that is so important and yet we often find it difficult to both give and receive it is a positive way?


Abraham Maslow, in his classic motivational Hierarchy of Needs theory including belonging as the first of our psychological needs (coming after our basic need for food, water, shelter and safety). Our sense of belonging gives us our place in the world and establishes our relationship to others – and feedback is one of the key ways we define this. We are constantly seeking feedback, using it to modify our behaviour, to work out where we fit and to grow and develop. Feedback has been described as the ‘lifeblood of learning’ (Rowntree 1987) and, if delivered effectively, can be a fundamental basis for improvement.


However, the paradox is that we also fear and resist the very thing that we need and crave.


Research tells us that only 30% of feedback has a positive impact, with a further 30 % having no impact and 40% actually making things worse! (Kluger & DeNisi, 1996). Part of the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of feedback, from a musical context is

“The return of a fraction of the output signal from an amplifier, microphone, or other device to the input of the same device; sound distortion produced by this.”

For any of you who have been to a rock concert, you will be familiar with that ‘sound distortion’ – that screeching noise that causes us to clasp our hands to our ears – and what a fitting metaphor for how many of us experience feedback!


So, what makes it so difficult and how can we make sure we are in the 30% that makes a positive difference?


We know that giving effective feedback is one of the core skills coaches, mentors and leaders in organisations need to develop and continue to hone, in order to support people in their development and growth. And the following are some of the essential factors in delivering this:

  • Trust and relationship are crucial. Feedback is more likely to be received and acted on if the receiver trusts and respects the provider. We need to spend time cultivating the relationship and earning trust if we want to be heard.
  • Give feedback on the behaviour or task, not the person. If we feel we are being personally attacked (rather than what we have done), our need to protect ourselves will reject both what is being said and the person saying it.
  • Be aware of the personal filters that each person has – we will hear feedback through the lens of our own experience, our age, gender, sexuality, race and our perspective and assumptions about the person giving it (a classic example is the seasoned and experienced employee receiving feedback from the much younger and less experienced manager).
  • Pay attention to the natural ‘fight or flight’ response that many will have to receiving feedback – that is simply the brain’s threat system kicking in, releasing cortisol in reaction to the perceived threat that feedback holds.
  • Give time to allow the feedback to land and sink in – people often need time to absorb what they have heard and work through their initial fight/flight reactions.

Finally, take the time to consider how you yourself seek and receive feedback. We can be our own useful barometers to www.ebi and use our experience to shape how we meet the needs of others for feedback that helps them to grow and develop.

Raymy Boyle


For more information on feedback, check out this link to our 5 - step feedback model for coaches

Raymy Boyle is Head of Community Development with Mindful talent. Information on our courses and programmes can be found here


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