In defence of feedback: three main criticisms of giving feedback at work and our counterarguments

Lisa Gill
4 May 2022

Emojis in conversation boxes

Over the past decade, we’ve trained thousands of professionals in how to give adult-adult feedback, and researched the pros and cons of feedback-giving at work.

One of the main obstacles? Feedback has a bad rap.

Here are three of the main criticisms of feedback (particularly ‘negative’ feedback) and our counterarguments.

Criticism #1: Feedback is subjective.

Here’s research summarised in the book Nine Lies About Work:

  • Humans can’t reliably rate other humans (nor can they be trained to)

  • Ratings data is ‘contaminated’ by people’s subjective experience (this is called the Idiosyncratic Rater Effect)

  • Adding more data doesn’t help reduce contamination (e.g. 360 feedback from a larger number of raters)

Our counterargument:

Is feedback subjective? Absolutely. Does that make it useless? No. Why? Because we grow by learning the impact we have on others.

Our recommendation is:

  • To have meaningful conversations over rating people (or if rating people must be part of your process, at least create opportunities to discuss what the ratings mean with those who gave them)

  • When giving feedback, be clear that the feedback is not THE truth, but your experience

  • Be humble and human

Criticism #2: Negative feedback impairs the brain’s ability to learn.

Brain science shows that we grow most where we are already strongest (where there are more existing neurons and connections). Research also shows that negative feedback triggers our fight or flight response, which impairs our brain’s learning functions.

Our counterargument:

That feedback is scary is not a reason to rob ourselves of learning opportunities.

Having said that, we are absolute believers in creating psychological safety in order to help people’s brains take in feedback that might be valuable for their development.

Here are three examples of ways to make it more safe and reactivate the brain’s learning functions:

  • Only give feedback when there is (genuine) consent (e.g. Ask “Is it OK if I give you some feedback about something I think could be useful for your development?”)

  • Choose a mindset which is something like: “I want to contribute to your development”, instead of the automatic, unconscious mindset we can tend to have when giving negative feedback, which is something like: “I want to change you or correct you”

  • Listen, listen, listen! After giving the feedback, listen (both to what is and isn’t being said) so that the other person feels heard and ‘felt’

Criticism #3: Feedback undermines self-reflection and self-direction

In her book No More Feedback, Carol Sanford says input from others triggers our need to belong.

Over time, we become dependent on external input and work towards others’ ideas and suggestions instead of our own. She believes it interferes with people’s capacity for self-development.

Our counterargument:

Based on how managers typically give feedback in traditional organisations, this is definitely a valid concern.

That is why we are so committed at Tuff to helping people, especially leaders, practise a way of giving feedback which empowers others to be responsible for their own development.

If we reinvent what a feedback conversation looks like, it can be a powerful complement to self-reflection. Some key principles for this are:

  • Give feedback that is in line with something a goal or interest the other person has (rather than what you think they should do or be)

  • Stop automatically following feedback with advice! It’s not that advice is wrong or bad, but when you couple feedback with advice, you are robbing the other person of the opportunity to a) choose if they want to take on this feedback, and b) take ownership of what they want to do with the feedback

  • Have a ‘Relationship Conversation’ with your colleagues to co-create agreements about how you want to give each other feedback

In summary…

You could say that feedback as a tool has been abused for the last century in top-down organisations. It has often been used in a parent-child way, despite good intentions.

But let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

There is enormous value in becoming skilled at giving adult-to-adult feedback which means:

  • Owning that feedback is subjective

  • Giving the other person a choice (about being in the conversation and about what they do with the feedback)

  • Contributing to people’s development based on their goal or interest (instead of your agenda)

  • Listening so the other person’s brain can come back online

  • And holding back your automatic tendency to give advice!

Want to learn more about an adult-adult way of giving feedback?

Learn about our Tuff Training: Leading Individuals (Step 1) programme (in person and online) or our online programme for social impact organisations in which we practise giving adult-to-adult feedback, and other key conversations that shift the traditional manager-subordinate dynamic in organisations.