January 4, 2022


Minute read

How To Make Your Feedback Effective (And Not Turn Into Criticism!)

Unfortunately, “feedback” has become a euphemism for criticism.  It’s a real shame, because feedback is essential to growth, and positive feedback that’s skillfully designed and delivered can be transformative.

However, giving and receiving effective feedback requires far more sophisticated communication skills than many professionals possess, including myself. We simply don’t learn to speak with such care — at least I never did., but then I studied physics for seven years. (Perhaps I should have studied psychology!) 

Factors That Work Against A “Culture Of Feedback”

Negativity bias. One problem that comes up when giving feedback is that human beings remember negative events more strongly than positive ones. This is called “negativity bias”. In fact, some studies have reported that employees need a 6:1 ratio of positive to negative comments in order to perform their best at work., and an 11:1 ratio is required for the positive and negative comments to feel equal. 

A few summers ago I was invited to Vienna to do a workshop on giving and receiving feedback effectively. The participants came from all over Europe, as well as Japan. But all of these human beings had one thing in common: they didn’t relish the thought of giving or receiving feedback. Why?

Well, imagine you’re enjoying a relatively dysfunction-free day at work when you see your manager strolling towards you. After exchanging pleasantries, she says “Hey, drop by my office at noon. I’ve got some feedback for you.”

What’s the first possibility that pops to mind? That you’re going to receive a shout-out for your extraordinary facilitation of a difficult project negotiation? That she’ll applaud the way you kept your team focused on last week’s mission-critical deadline? ANY of the hundreds of things you did right on your project in the past week? Most people I’ve encountered would be expecting something negative because, really, how often do we receive positive feedback at work?

Feedback in many workplaces is predominantly negative. In fact, one of my clients even bragged that they didn’t need to waste their time patting themselves – and each other – on the back. I can assure you that this view was NOT shared by their many disheartened employees hungry for some sign that their contributions were appreciated – or at least noticed!

Establishing a “culture of appreciation” is an important part of working with others. After all, if we don’t tell our teammates what they’re doing right, they might stop doing it! 

The absence of feedback. Many workplaces fail to integrate feedback into routine practice, except for the dreaded annual performance review and – God help us – stacked ranking. Thankfully, this is finally starting to change as people find traditional performance review practices often actually decrease performance, even for highly ranked individuals.

Even so, I vividly recall an engineering friend once telling me he had worked for six months without receiving any sign of what his new manager thought of his work performance. Finally, feeling that he was working in something akin to an anechoic, or sound-proof chamber (the quietest place on earth) – he worked up the courage to approach his manager directly.

He went to his manager’s desk and found him busily checking email. “So,” my friend said, “I’ve been working for you for six months now. How’s it going?” His manager paused briefly, fingers poised above his keyboard, then said “Hmmm, good,” and immediately returned to his email. Yup, a half of a year of performance feedback was succinctly communicated in barely more than a grunt. 

Tips & Tools to Do It Right

There is a better way. Like most of what I write about, it’s common sense, but not common practice.

Create psychological safety. — We’re much more likely to be open to feedback when we feel that we’re in a safe environment where we trust the people involved. This is known as psychological safety, a “shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status or career.”

Naturally, this must be built on a foundation of trust among the various individuals. Trust can take a long time to build, but it can be destroyed in a moment and can be difficult to repair, so it’s worth it to spend time purposefully building and maintaining trust.

Gallup Research’s low global employee engagement scores suggest that most workplaces don’t meet the psychological safety requirement. This might also explain why the lowest scoring employee behavior globally among the 30 Leadership Challenge behaviors studied by Posner and Kouzes for three decades is “asks for feedback on how their actions affects people’s performance.”

Why care about feedback when you don’t feel engaged at work?

Ensure feedback is focused on a goal the feedback recipient cares about. Criticism, at least the unskillful type, occurs when one person tells another their opinion of what’s wrong with something about that other person.

Anyone who’s got parents has surely experienced this. Recently my mom told me that my hair was too long. Now, I love my mother more than life itself, but how I choose to style my hair? I’m really not interested in her opinion of my hair. At all. 

Feedback, on the other hand, is offering your opinion to the other person with the intention of supporting them in achieving a better outcome that matters to THEM.

If my mom said something like, “Hey, I hear that you want to brand yourself as a badass global business consultant who helps people achieve what seems impossible but is merely difficult. I think a shorter hairstyle would be more aligned with that image. And why don’t you add some electric blue streaks in it, too, to show that you’ve got a huge creative streak in you?” that would be feedback. (Are you reading this, Mom? Remember, I love you bunches!!)

Focus on the other person’s goals and position your comments entirely to help THEM achieve what THEY want. Anything else is just criticism.

If you want to build an environment where you can give feedback, first create a practice of asking for it and receiving it gracefully.

This is easier said than done. Over 90% of drivers rate themselves as “above average”. Called “illusory superiority,” not only is this a mathematical impossibility, it demonstrates that self-evaluation sucks. Our egos are NOT our friends when it comes to welcoming even helpful feedback.

Most of my consulting projects include a phase where I gather input from a diverse cross-section of people in the organization. When I get comments related to the executives of that organization, I offer to share them with the executives – anonymously of course.

Without fail, when the comments are negative, the first question executives ask is, “Who said that?” Naturally, I never disclose the identity of the people who made these comments, but it’s telling that this reaction is so universal. It’s no wonder people hesitate to speak truth to power!

Use language skillfully to avoid judgemental words, focusing on effectiveness. Words matter, especially in a feedback conversation. Consider the impact of calling sushi “raw, dead fish,” or a colonoscopy . . . well, never mind.

Keep language focused on effectiveness and avoid judgmental words such as good/bad and right/wrong. Even less-charged words such as like/don’t like and agree/disagree should be avoided.

You might be tempted to gush, “What a great job! I love what you did!” but I assure you that this judgmental language will not serve you nearly so well when it’s time to discuss the dark side.

Here’s language that keeps the conversation in the realm of effectiveness and steers clear of troublesome pitfalls: 

  • What’s working? . . . and we should continue to do it, or do more?
  • What’s NOT working? . . . and we should change it?
  • What’s missing? . . . and we should add it?

If there are things missing, or that we should change, ask:

  • What should we add, or start doing? . . . or what could we do MORE?
  • What should we stop doing? . . . or perhaps we should do LESS?

Finally, here’s my favorite feedback language – what I call the “magic wand question” that can open up possibilities no practical, realistic person would dare consider: 

  • If anything were possible, if we were guaranteed success, what would we instantly create or change that would transform ourselves, our team, our project, our organization, for the better?

Let that one sink in for a while, at least long enough for the shock of your expansive “possibility thinking” to make it through the wall of cynicism that protects many employees from further disappointment.

Integrate both positive and corrective feedback routinely into the work environment. If you want to create a culture of feedback, you must incorporate feedback processes into your routine business processes.

A great example for project managers is the post-project review. (Can we please stop calling them post mortems?!) Design feedback into daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, and annual routines.

For example:

  • Having a meeting? 
    • Schedule the last five minutes for feedback on the meeting. 
  • Thinking about installing new beverage and snack stations in your office? 
    • Post a flip chart near the existing ones asking people for their ideas and suggestions. 
  • Scheduling a team offsite? 
    • Solicit ideas from the people on your team about the location, agenda, and menu as well as what must happen and what must NOT happen.
  • Considering redesigning your project management lifecycle? 
    • Ask your stakeholders for their inputs before rolling out your fancy new process.

Use tools that will ensure feedback has a clear goal and will shape the language used. You could spend many hours –and a lot of money – teaching everyone how to give and receive feedback effectively. And, like federally mandated fire extinguisher training, you could hold a refresher course every couple of years.

OR you could provide tools that easily and effortlessly guide your teams in the art of feedback without all of that rigmarole.

Based loosely on the recently popular “nudge theory,” this involves using tools that make it easy to give and receive feedback and that naturally result in keeping feedback goal-centered and using the language of feedback.

Here are a few tools that I’ve found particularly useful:

Feedback Notes – These sticky notes explicitly incorporate non-judgmental language into the feedback process with the added benefit of making feedback anonymous, which is especially important when trust has not yet been established. 

Image Ref: Trainer’s Warehouse

Plus/Delta – This is a quick and easy way to solicit feedback, even from large groups. It literally takes only a few minutes, and you can do it without the fancy sticky notes pictured above. You can even do this verbally if you’ve established sufficient trust to make that work.

At the end of a meeting, task or project, ask, “What worked about this, and what should we continue – or even do more of – in future meetings?” This is the “Plus.” (Do the positive first!)

Then move to the “Delta” — which is geek-speak for change — by asking, “What might we change in the future to work better?”

Every person need only say their inputs aloud or write their thoughts on an individual sticky note so you can group them by theme and title afterward.

Here’s an example of some feedback from the end of the first day of our feedback workshop in Austria:

Image Ref: Kimberly Wiefling, Wiefling Consulting, Inc., Silicon Valley Alliances

Feedback Starfish – Want more detailed feedback? Or perhaps you simply like echinoderms?

In this technique, you make a “feedback starfish” on a flip chart like the one shown below. It’s vital that you place your goal at the center of this starfish (many examples I’ve seen don’t include this), and explain your goal clearly to the people who will be giving feedback.

For example, if looking for feedback to help you become a better leader, you might ask, “If you were absolutely committed to helping me become the kind of leader I admire (describe in detail), what advice would you give me? What ideas do you have for me?”

Ask each person to share their advice on sticky notes after you leave the room – one idea per sticky note.

I’ve convinced several executives to participate in this leadership feedback experiment, and it’s always enlightening.

NOTE: Give everyone the same color and size of sticky notes and same type and color of pen so you’re not tempted to try to figure out who said what!

Image Ref: Kimberly Wiefling, Wiefling Consulting, Inc., Silicon Valley Alliances

Master the art of transformational positive feedback. I recently read a terrific book called “Extraordinary Influence”. In it, I discovered an incredible feedback tool with the power to transform individuals into the best possible version of themselves.

Positive comments aren’t normally considered transformational, but that’s because of the trivial way they are often offered. We say things like “Good job!,” “Well done,” and “Thanks!,” but fail to flesh out our recognition with details that have the power to shape future positive behaviors.

What transforms a hollow “thank you” into a transformative experience? Make your comments specific, selective, and timely. But that’s just “Attitude of Gratitude 101.” If you want to get your Ph.D. in appreciation, you need to include the what, how, why, and who in your positive feedback.

Here’s a simple tool that I developed to make that easy. Just open your heart (Yikes! So touchy-feely!!) and think deeply about these four questions:

  • WHAT did this person do that you appreciate?
  • HOW did they do it? What approach did they follow that contributed positively?
  • WHY did they take this approach? What positively motivated them?
  • WHO are they, at their core, that makes this kind of approach come naturally to them?

Here’s an example :

Image Ref: Kimberly Wiefling, Wiefling Consulting, Inc., Silicon Valley Alliances

Hone Your Feedback Mojo!

At the recommendation of a friend who is the chief people officer for one of my clients, I recently read a book called “Radical Candor.” What’s so radical about being open and honest with each other in the workplace? It’s been my practice for my entire career.

Effective feedback isn’t rocket science! There’s plenty of guidance on how to do it well, and there’s just no excuse for doing it badly. 

Remember, when you give feedback, focus on positive comments about what’s working – what’s rewarded is repeated. Make a habit of asking for feedback from people you trust and respect. Make sure both giving and receiving feedback are always done in the service of a goal that the receiver cares about.

And if you do find yourself the target of some clumsily delivered or hurtful feedback, remember that the interpretation of that feedback – and the decision about whether to act on it — is within your control.

Over the years, I’ve kept this response handy for when people say, “Kimberly, you’re hyperactive!” I look them straight in the eyes, and with a big smile on my face, reply “Thank you for noticing! I do bring a great deal of energy and passion to my work. In fact, it was you who inspired this in me!”

Stunned silence is the usual response. Sometimes what people think of us is none of our business.

If you were determined to make this article more valuable and effective for readers, what specifically would you change? Looking forward to your feedback! 

Want to get on a path to more health and wellbeing? Join the MAPS Institute or connect with me to transform your organization!

About the Author: Kimberly Wiefling

Kimberly Wiefling, founder of Wiefling Consulting, and co-founder of Silicon Valley Alliances, is the author of Scrappy Project Management, (published in English and Japanese), and the executive editor of
the "Scrappy Guides." series. Kimberly helps managers become leaders and groups of people become true teams that can achieve what seems impossible -- and would be for any individual acting alone."Impossible" just means we haven't figured out how to do it yet! Click here to visit her website.



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