Why feedback goes wrong and how to fix it
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Why feedback goes wrong and how to fix it

The way of giving feedback has a great impact in your daily life. How you deliver the message to people you are in contact with can bring you closer to them, or it can push them away. So, it’s just as important to learn not only about giving good feedback, but also what bad feedback is and why we so often end up messing it up.

If you missed my previous tips and tricks for giving effective feedback article, you can read it on this blog. But this time, I want to focus on what not to do when you give feedback. Let’s get started.

What is bad feedback

bad feedback

We hear so much about why “bad feedback” is bad and how important it is to avoid it! However, bad feedback happens for specific reasons, and the only way to avoid it is to recognize the most typical situations that make it happen.

Let’s see the most common mistakes that lead to bad feedback. In this way, you can review your process and improve the feedback giving experience for you and for the receiver:

  • You (wrongly) assume that your colleagues and peers know how much you appreciate them
  • You wait too long to offer your feedback. To the point that the other person doesn’t remember the situation you’re talking about. And you can’t change what you don’t remember
  • You offer praise just to be polite, without any substance or examples
  • You are using voicemail or e-mail to avoid an actual conversation
  • You don’t follow through or fail to follow up, in order to recognize changes made
  • You are using the sandwich approach (negative feedback between two pieces of positive feedback). This may undermine the relationship with your direct reports
  • You are delivering negative feedback in front of others; this includes negative body language
  • You are advising asking for insights, which creates a one-way monologue rather than a conversation
  • You bring in the opinions of others rather than owning your observations, which undermines trust
  • You change topics midway through the conversation and confusing the issue
  • You provide feedback only about what’s going wrong, focus on failings
  • You make criticism sound threatening and personal
  • You praise the ability, not the effort

Breaking the vicious circle

With some exercise, in time, you will be able to recognize these situations and make the necessary tweaks for a better feedback-giving experience. But let’s be honest, at first, it might be hard. What could help?

Team up with a colleague or friend to be your accountability partner. This will help you collect your own feedback about your feedback-giving process.

Also, maintain a positive attitude during the process of your feedback improvement. This will ease the process, as sometimes positive results may come in small doses at first. Just remember, it’s a process that takes patience and perseverance. With time, you will be more agile in your thinking and communicate better.

Pitfalls you should avoid

feedback-giving pitfalls

There are many traps that you can fall into when giving feedback. Here are the most common situations that, when they arise, should ring many bells:

  • Providing too many areas to work on; instead, use the 3×3 rule where you give three positive feedback examples and three areas where the other person needs to improve (as described by Bert Decker in his book You’ve Got To Be Believed To Be Heard)
  • Not focusing on the learning intentions/goals and success criteria;
  • Not being clear in your feedback;
  • Not being specific in the area they should progress
  • Not providing time to reflect on the feedback and make changes;
  • Not knowing enough about what you want the person to learn. This is a major setback in providing specific feedback related to their work;
  • Talking too much – the learner loses track of what you are trying to help them with
  • Using an indirect approach to avoid uncomfortable confrontations. Of course, this doesn’t mean you have to be cruel or hurt other people’s feelings. Remember, you should refer to a certain behavior, not a person.
  • Bringing other people into it – sometimes it may seem easier to act as you are only the messenger of unpleasant feedback. But this too, is indirect feedback, a cause of mistrust in the workplace and also, it’s ineffective. Instead of focusing on the message, the receiver will be busy figuring out who is, in fact, the sender of the message, and why aren’t they delivering it themselves.

Neuroscience-backed research

According to Dr. Richard Boyatzis and his colleagues at Case Western Reserve, we often make three major mistakes when trying to coach others.

  1. Set specific goals
  2. Provide feedback before is asked for
  3. Provide tips on how to perform better

It appears these methods put the brain into defense state (fight or flight). They activate the Sympathetic Nervous System, responsible for releasing stress hormones. In this state, the person in front of us is less capable to learn, be creative or develop new skills.

Instead, Boyatzis suggests we could start with the following question:

“If everything in your life worked out perfectly, what would you do in 10 years?”

Richard Boyatzis

Such a question opens up fresh possibilities for our interlocutor to focus on what matters most to them; to focus on the values driving them through life. Instead of setting objectives, you remind them of their own.

Why do we make these mistakes

Of course you need to help people see what’s not working. As Boyatzis put it, “You need the negative focus to survive, but a positive one to thrive. You need both, but in the right ratio.”

Be gentle toward yourself, even when you make mistakes. Try to understand the root causes behind them, not only to work on your feedback quality, but also on you as a better, fulfilled human being:

  • Fear of upsetting colleagues and damaging professional relationships
  • Defensive behavior/resistance when receiving feedback
  • Physical barriers: noise, or improper time, place or space
  • Personal agendas
  • Lack of confidence 

Take away thoughts

Giving feedback is an acquired skill, so take time to understand yourself better and practice empathy when giving feedback.

Your turn

Did any of these bad feedback situations happen to you? How did you manage?

Mihaela Bejan
Written by
Mihaela Bejan
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