Delivering effective feedback can be a challenge. While it can be tough, feedback is one of the best ways to improve performance. But why is it so difficult? When I talk to learners in my training sessions, I often hear a similar concern. You probably already know what it is! You guessed it, people struggle with delivering corrective feedback, that is, the feedback that involves suggesting the person needs to do something differently. Conversely they rarely struggle with encouraging “you’re doing this well, keep doing it!” reinforcing type of feedback.

Why are we so reluctant to deliver honest constructive feedback to someone when we know it will help them? To be honest there are probably a multitude of reasons: from feelings about how the person will react, to how they have had feedback delivered to them in the past – and if it was a positive or negative experience.

While there can be many reasons why people shy away from delivering the feedback people often need the most, I believe there are three reasons holding people back that are often overlooked.

1) Traditional feedback models (such as the “Praise Sandwich”) are flawed

You know the model I’m talking about. It comes in many forms, it’s been delivered as the staple feedback model for the past 25 years. It has many aliases: the “Praise Sandwich”, the “Feedback Hamburger” the “Bathtub”. This is the model that describes feedback as a step by step process, and encourages the user to cushion “negative” feedback with soft and fluffy pillows of positive feedback.

Here are 3 problems with the “Praise Sandwich”:

  1. It encourages the belief that certain types of feedback are positive or negative.
  2. It works from an assumption that the person receiving the feedback couldn’t bear to take being asked to do something differently unless it is surrounded by reinforcing feedback.
  3. It is at odds with the rule of primacy and recency. Originally known as the serial position effect and traditionally relating to the recall of numbers, this effect tells us that people tend to recall information presented first and last easier than information presented to them in the middle of a communication. Unfortunately, the “Praise Sandwich” tells us to position the corrective feedback in the middle, the place where it is least likely to be remembered.

2) Feedback is often labelled as “negative or “positive”

Think about some of the beliefs or language you hear people use about feedback. When I ask students about feedback, without fail they refer to feedback as “positive” or “negative”. Perpetuated by some common models about feedback (more on this later), this is the idea that some types of feedback are negative and others are positive. Let’s think about that for a moment – since when was improvement negative? Shouldn’t that be what genuine constructive feedback is about – improvement? So why would it be seen as a negative thing to improve and become better at something?

Why does the term positive or negative matter? First, when delivering feedback, it should be constructive. If it’s constructive and genuinely focused on improvement then it can’t be negative. Whether the person sees it as positive or negative is up to them but it’s not your place, as the deliverer of the feedback, to label it “negative”. Think about it, if you go into a feedback situation thinking, “I’ve got some negative feedback to deliver”, how likely is it that the recipient will perceive it as negative? Very likely.

So, forget the positive and negative labels and just focus on your feedback being constructive.

3) The various forms of feedback are not recognised

So if feedback is neither positive nor negative, what type of feedback is there? Generally speaking there are four types of feedback:

  1. Appreciative
  2. Reinforcing
  3. Corrective
  4. Developmental

Appreciative feedback

Appreciative feedback is about saying “thank you”, it’s about recognising and appreciating effort and contribution NOT performance. This is important because despite someone’s best efforts sometimes things don’t always go to plan. There might not be cause to celebrate but where there is effort you can appreciate.

All feedback conversations should start with a statement of appreciation. The simplest form of appreciation is “Thank you” or “I really appreciate the effort you have put into this. You have encountered many challenges and your effort in pushing through those has been outstanding”. While this might seem common sense, it’s not common practice, with years of organisational research finding that people often don’t feel appreciated at work.

Reinforcing feedback

This is the feedback most people deliver well. Reinforcing feedback highlights what’s working well, this is the stuff you want people to repeat. For example, “the introduction to your presentation was excellent, your opener was well timed and you engaged the audience straight away with your enthusiasm and passion. This is something you should reflect on and repeat, well done”.

Corrective feedback

Delivering corrective feedback is where most people have difficulty. These are the things you want the person to do differently. It’s the stuff that needs to change. For example, “your work needs closer attention to the detail, particularly the spelling, grammar and sentence structure. Consider having a co-worker review it before you distribute it to your team.”

Importantly this is not a negative statement, it’s constructive and focused on improvement.

Developmental feedback

Developmental feedback is in a way a hybrid of both corrective and reinforcing feedback. It is about identifying what someone is doing well and advising them how to improve it. You might say, “Your Power Point Presentations are well constructed and generally of a high standard. However, I think there are some small adjustments you can make and will have a big impact on your slides and how your audience reacts to them. They are…”

Developmental feedback is about finding out what people do well, identifying ways that it can be improved and communicating that effectively.

So, before you deliver your next feedback conversation, take a moment to consider and incorporate some of the above principles into the conversation!

Tony Kirton is the founder of Engage Learning and Development an organisation committed to developing and delivering engaging learning programs that inspire behavioural change.

Contact Tony directly on 0497 686 242 or fill out the form below and we will get in touch.

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