Navigating the feedback jungle

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Jaakko Kaikuluoma 21 Nov 2019
Maslow's hierarchy of needs

Feedback is messy. Make more sense of it by updating your terminology. Say reinforcing and redirecting feedback, instead of positive and negative feedback.

Let’s say it out loud: feedback is messy. You’re probably holding in something right now, with no idea of how to say it or how the other person would respond. Consequently, it’s likely you’ll never give that feedback. Perhaps you’ll wait for the right moment to come, not knowing exactly what it would be. You’re not alone.

Personal feedback is a hot topic in leadership and organizational culture. One of the most interesting findings about feedback is that people are hungry for corrective feedback, but the majority of people are unwilling and afraid to give it to others. Radical Candor advocates direct confrontations, but some experts claim that judging, critiquing and evaluating others prevents learning. Other sources point out that “negative” feedback is highly valuable for companies’ success and personal development, at least in the short term. Employee engagement is yet another relevant topic. People are reported to be twice as engaged in work when their manager’s feedback focuses on strengths rather than weaknesses.

No one can blame you for feeling lost in the perilous feedback jungle. Let’s start macheting our way through by first setting straight the terminology regarding feedback, and then by listing what the research agrees on.

Try saying reinforcing and redirecting feedback instead of positive and negative

Is feedback always either positive or negative? No, it’s more complicated than that. Receiving corrective and constructive critique can be a very positive experience. On the other hand, positive praise can raise unwanted feelings if it seems inauthentic or overwhelming. Dividing feedback into positive and negative categories is suboptimal – we can do better than that.

We at Teamspective have chosen a terminology that describes the two possible motives for giving feedback: reinforcing and redirecting.

  • When you express how your needs were satisfied by the person’s actions, you are giving reinforcing feedback.
  • When you express how your needs could be better satisfied by the other person’s actions, you are giving redirecting feedback.

Reinforcing feedback

The intention of giving reinforcing feedback is evident: you want to reward and reinforce behavior that satisfies your needs or someone else’s. You can say “thank you for being so precise with the calculations in your report” and be quite assured the next report follows suit. As we all know, it feels great to be recognized for hard work. It boosts confidence and morale and encourages you to try more, i.e. makes you more engaged. It builds trust between feedback provider and recipient, and makes people see they’re on the same team.

Because it also feels good to give reinforcement, there are no losers in reinforcing feedback. So don’t spare it, share it!

Redirecting feedback

In redirection, the intention is to share your take on how your needs could be better satisfied next time by the other person’s actions. People generally want redirecting feedback – so being able to give it fluently is an appreciated skill. Just remember it is you sharing your personal view on the matter, not you giving objective facts.

We’re putting together a more comprehensive guide for redirection - so stay tuned!

Formulating your feedback

How does one give redirecting feedback without hurting feelings? Or reinforcing feedback without seeming superficial? Start by stating what you observed, describing activities without evaluation or judgement. Next, share what impact the behaviour had (this includes the feelings and reactions of the people involved). Finally, you can express what you want or need next time in a similar setting by making an actionable and precise request (not a demand!).

Here’s an example of redirecting feedback:

  • “When Rick gave his suggestion, he was not able to finish his sentence before you said it would never work.” (observation)
  • “This makes people feel afraid and be reluctant to give you new suggestions. I would like you to show more consideration for others.” (impact, feeling, need)
  • “Please, try to let others finish their sentences in brainstorming sessions.” (request)

In case of reinforcing feedback, making a request is optional. Otherwise, you can use the same model for observation, feeling, impact, and need.

Here’s an example of reinforcing feedback:

  • “When Rick gave his suggestion, you gave him a lot of space and listened intently.” (observation)
  • “Although the suggestion was eventually refused, I believe everyone felt good about the consideration you showed him.” (impact, feeling, need)

The method just described is an adaptation from “Nonviolent Communication”, or NVC. Such a formal approach is not always needed, but it’s good to have as a backup for challenging situations.

Summary: a checklist for thoughtful feedback

There are some points research agrees on. These provide a good starting point for feedback:

  • Reinforcing feedback is good for people and builds trust in teams. It also improves work engagement, motivation and performance.
  • Redirecting feedback is ok, beneficial and wanted by a majority of people. Criticism, judgement and evaluation of others can be harmful.
  • People are most often reluctant to give personal feedback due to uncertainty and lack of proper guidelines or processes.
  • It is good to have consent before giving feedback – be it reinforcing or redirecting. The best way for getting consent is to have people ask for feedback actively.
  • People should be able to control their own feedback – not everyone wants spontaneous feedback in a monthly meeting, even praise.

Finally, what you can do is ask for feedback from your team members. This way you’ll show appreciation for their views, and give them consent to share their thoughts. Do it after projects, workshops and presentations, and whenever else you need it. By doing this you will contribute to building a healthier feedback culture in your organisation.


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