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Science-Based Tips on How to Give Effective Feedback

For feedback to work, it must be received and believed.

Key points

  • Feedback refers to corrective information given to increase the recipient’s self-awareness and improve his or her performance.
  • Feedback frequently fails because the recipient is either not receptive to the feedback or doubts its credibility.
  • Effective feedback is clear, honest, accurate, timely, empowering, and relates to a specific behavior rather than a person’s character.
Source: demifun1/Pixabay

Published in the August issue of Current Opinion in Psychology, a paper by Fulham, et al. suggests that for feedback—meaning “information provided to recipients about their behavior, performance, or understanding”—to be effective, the advisee must be receptive to the information and to discern its truth.

Barriers to receptivity

Threats to the sense of self

When feedback is interpreted as threatening to one’s sense of self, it can result in feelings of shame and humiliation, defensiveness, and even aggressive behavior. This tends to occur when the feedback is perceived as a personal attack—as critical of one’s character (e.g., values, intelligence) than critical of a behavior (e.g., not being assertive in a meeting).

Feedback may also be rejected when it is inconsistent with one’s sense of self—whether the advice is too critical for an overconfident person or too positive for a person with a negative self-view.

In addition, some people, such as those with low self-esteem or high rejection sensitivity, are prone to defensiveness when given negative feedback.

Distrusting the feedback or feedback giver

Feedback is more likely to be rejected when the credibility (e.g., knowledge, expertise) of the feedback-giver is in doubt. For instance, teachers’ suggestions are more likely to be ignored when teachers exaggerate their mastery of a subject.

Similarly, distrust grows when the advisor does not appear to care enough for the listener.

The opposite may also occur; namely, an advisee may fear that the advice given is inaccurate because the advisor is too kind and compassionate and thus unwilling to be brutally honest.

Other barriers include motives (e.g., financial incentives) and race and gender dynamics (e.g., men giving positive feedback to women so as not to appear sexist).

Doubting the feedback recipient’s ability or willingness to change

Some barriers are related to the beliefs of both feedback givers and recipients concerning the recipients’ willingness and ability to change.

To illustrate, students who do believe they are incapable of change are less likely to seek advice. And a teacher who assumes a particular student is unwilling to change may directly or indirectly communicate these low expectations to the student, who may then lose the motivation to improve.

Barriers to discerning the truth

Having trouble understanding the feedback

Being receptive to feedback is not sufficient for change if the feedback itself is vague, abstract, complicated, lacks examples, or is not related to the feedback recipient’s goals.

In addition, sometimes people provide too much or too little feedback. Or provide negative feedback to a recipient who does not have sufficient emotion-regulation skills to process the criticism or is from a culture where feedback is delivered in a more indirect manner. In both cases, the result is defensiveness and other emotional reactions that may interfere with understanding the meaning of the feedback.

Having difficulty determining the truth of the feedback

Because of the potential negative consequences of providing critical feedback, many people provide feedback that is more positive than it should be. This makes it difficult for the recipient to determine the truth of the feedback and to use this information to improve.

In addition, the authors note, feedback providers who do not “adjust the content or tone of their feedback to the context,” may “create difficulties for feedback-recipients to determine whether the feedback is accurate or instead is a byproduct of the feedback giver's persistent communication style, behavioral patterns, or personality.”

For instance, people are more likely to ignore the views of a person who is (or appears to be) a pessimist.

Just as there are obstacles related to gender and race in feedback receptivity, there are obstacles to ascertaining the truth of the advice given to people who belong to certain stigmatized groups (e.g., women, ethnic minorities). For instance, a woman told she did a “fine job” on a leadership task may doubt the veracity of the feedback and disregard it.

A feedback recipient's feelings, motivations, and goals may also bias the interpretation of the feedback. To illustrate, in a romantic relationship, a person who wants to feel close to their partner may see him or her as more supportive than they really are and feel motivated to believe the veracity of the positive feedback they provide.

Arash Emmazadeh (adapted from Fulham et al., 2022)
Source: Arash Emmazadeh (adapted from Fulham et al., 2022)

How to give feedback

Approaches to giving feedback aim to increase the receptivity to and credibility of the message.

A familiar one is the sandwich approach to feedback—the “meat” of negative feedback sandwiched between two or more positive comments. But the sandwich approach does not necessarily work. Why?

Because although the goal of the sandwich method is to increase the receptivity of feedback by reducing threats to the recipient's sense of self, it can result in the recipient getting confused about what the actual feedback is or doubting the credibility of the positive comments.

In general, what does not work, according to the authors, are messages “characterized by brutal honesty, obnoxious aggression, manipulative insincerity, ruinous empathy, or false encouragement” because they tend to “create problems for receptivity and discerning the truth in feedback.”

What does work is to maximize honesty and benevolence; that is, to give feedback that is truthful and promotes the individual’s well-being in the long term. This approach is usually better than the alternatives: brutal honesty (high honesty but low benevolence), avoidance (low honesty and low benevolence), and giving false hope (high benevolence but low honesty).

Of course, some unpleasantness may be necessary, but only if it has long-term benefits. For instance, there is nothing valuable about giving honest negative feedback on things a person could not have predicted or controlled.

Lastly, it is important to think of the removal of barriers as a responsibility that feedback givers and receivers share.

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