The struggles of feedback

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Most companies struggle with feedback. A lot can be at stake, there are feelings involved and not many of us are properly trained for giving good feedback.

When I trained to become a coach 12 years ago, I learned the sandwich feedback model (good news, bad news, good news), but it never really sat well with me.

Since then, I have tried other models and some are better like the SBIF model (Situation, Behaviour, Impact, Future), but even with the best intentions I haven’t really seen any of them applied much in daily business operations neither in the companies I worked for or at the clients I’ve helped.

Harvard professor Jennifer Garner has written about this problem in her book Simple Habits for Complex Times, “We have never seen anyone have a natural inclination for giving and receiving feedback well”, which might explain why it is practiced so little.

And it doesn’t help that some of the models potentially make it worse. Remember the sandwich model. Garner actually calls it the shit sandwich – because it doesn’t matter how good the bread is, if what’s in the middle is…

So, if we can’t wrap our bad news in good news, then how do we create good conditions for good feedback?


Stick to the facts

Garner, points to something that can be easily forgotten. The purpose of feedback is that we learn. Everything in a feedback session should be about creating the right conditions for learning.

But before we get started. What is feedback really? Feedback can never be more than the sharing of a personal experience to help the other person learn. None of us can patent the truth. At work though, your truth as a manager might mean more and might also have more substance, because you have more experience, but it is not necessarily the case that you are the one on point.

Feedback can never be more than the sharing of a personal experience to help the other person learn

That means one key goal of feedback should be that both parties make their best possible effort to understand each other.

Normally, we end up just sharing everything that we are frustrated with.  This is a problem because we end up mixing actual observations with our own opinions. That’s not helpful for learning. Instead we ought to prepare as best we can by asking three different kinds of questions.

  1. Datawhat actually happened in this situation. What evidence do you have? What are the facts everyone would agree upon? – Make sure though that you stick to the facts.
  2. FeelingHow are you feeling about this? What is the strength of the emotion you’re feeling? Yes, yes. We do need to talk about feelings – they are the root of our most difficult conversations.
  3. Impact – What is the impact of this behaviour on the workplace? Or, on you. Understand that sharing the effect of the impact is still only your subject experience of the impact and not an absolute truth, which open as space for the receiver to have a different opinion.

Find a way to listen

Research also tells us that listening is the on skill that can best make up for all of our other incompetency when giving feedback, and perhaps even beyond.

Feedback can have a tendency to make us feel rejected, having to struggle for our existence in the group we belong to, which can bring up all sorts of fears. Listening makes us feel we are still a part of the conversation.

Listening is also important for the person giving the feedback

  • What might you not know about the situation you are giving feedback on?
  • What is it really like to be the person on the other side of the table and what might have been happening in their lives in the past weeks or months, affecting the very thing you are giving feedback on?

We must listen to learn, understand and allow for adjustments in our feedback.

We must also listen because its’s the compassionate thing to do, and because it creates a space for the other person to be vulnerable and actually initiate the process of learning.


As always – the key is practice

To become good at feedback we must practice. Leaders play a key role in initiating practice, but everyone can contribute to a better culture of feedback. Here are some actions you might take to help the process.

  1. State the importance of feedback
  2. Share your intent to practice feedback more, but underscore that it will take time for both individual leaders and the organisation as a whole to get good at it
  3. Involve the organisation to understand, what people think about feedback and what is important to them
  4. Make it part of everyday operations, not a half-yearly event
  5. Set up practice sessions to further legitimize feedback, as a routinely exercise
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