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Stereotypes About Giving and Receiving Feedback

Updated: Apr 16, 2021

When someone at work asks you if you’d like some feedback, you are likely to jump to attention. Adrenaline shoots through your brain and you unconsciously recall criticism from a teacher or parent or react to another fearful event from the past. This happens so commonly that Microsoft and other high-tech companies, in collaboration with brain science researchers at Neuro Leadership Institute based in New York, launched a huge feedback program a few years ago that encourages people to ask for feedback but not offer feedback unless another person asks. It became a “ground rule” to never offer unsolicited feedback, as that is what triggers the most fear.

I consider this rule to be too extreme and actually undesirable in a workplace. It’s also unnecessary among people who build a positive culture of giving and receiving helpful feedback. But you can see how tempting it is to avoid feedback in your life and miss all the good stuff it can provide.

We all have stereotypes in mind about feedback. Here are four you may recognize:

  • Feedback is always critical The train of thought here is that people would spontaneously compliment you if they had something positive to say. So when someone offers “feedback,” it means they want you to correct something they think you are doing wrong.

There are several reasons this is a false assumption. For one thing, people don’t always share positive feedback, even though describing what you did well and why think so is essential for learning and improvement, as shown in all areas of the arts, sports, and professional development. At work, you need to know what you are doing well and what the results are from the good thing you’re doing. Positive feedback gives you a snapshot of exactly what to do more of. That is feedback.

Feedback—either “positive” or “negative,” is simply information about your past action and its results. From that feedback, you can adjust your future actions. The labels “positive” or “critical” don’t apply for true feedback. For example, feedback from airplane navigation equipment relays information about where the plane is and where it’s heading, so that the pilot can adjust the path in another direction or continue on the same path. The data from which the pilot makes any correction is neither good or bad, A plus or C minus. Its just information.

  • Feedback means performance review ratings The first thing that usually comes to mind when you mention feedback are painful performance reviews you’ve received from a boss. This kind of feedback is usually incoherent and unhelpful, and the boss who gave it to you and your colleagues was trying to wiggle out of it by asking you to fill out forms, rate yourself, come up with examples and do all the work.

While one tiny subset of in the universe of feedback may result in such a written legal document in your work organization, performance review occurs only once a year or otherwise infrequently. You can benefit from giving and receiving far more useful, informal feedback on any of the 364 other days in the year.

Performance ratings are also being phased out in many work environments. No one likes them and the people who compose them usually do them badly. Forget about written reviews and make a plan for exchanging helpful feedback to grow your skills and help others do the same.

  • You need to be trained to give effective feedback The assumption is that anyone who gives feedback needs to be trained in how to use the right language and avoid pitfalls of giving “subjective” feedback. They are likely to blurt out hurtful comments if they don’t do detailed preparation.

This is bunk. All feedback is subjective as it comes from one person’s perceptions about the work you completed. Most human beings are actually good at giving helpful information to others in just the right amounts. There are exceptions of course. But training people to give helpful suggestions may or may not result in better feedback.

Some of the best feedback givers are children, new people on your team, or people from outside your expertise. The two qualities that predict the best feedback givers are authenticity and positive intentions. These are equivalent to honesty paired with caring compassion.

  • You need to act on feedback Absolutely not. No obligations here. Some feedback is irrelevant to you, your field, or your reason for asking for the feedback.  But often the off-the-wall feedback you sometimes hear is a clue to something else—something completely different from what the feedback giver understands about your area of effort. And their crazy feedback can sometimes improve your art, your product, or your skill. The fact that the feedback giver doesn’t understand your work at all can free you up to use it to expand what you’re doing in a whole new direction.

There are many more stereotypes about feedback I’ve only described a few of them here. Hopefully you can reach beyond these and other feedback stereotypes and consider more ways to give, receive, and utilize feedback to achieve your most exciting goals.

The Feedback Imperative book

Read The Feedback Imperative for more tips and strategies for leading remotely

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