Empowering people to give and receive more effective feedback

The shift towards an open, feedback-rich culture

Feedback is a powerful development lever in the workplace.

Feedback helps people understand their strengths and weaknesses, as well as the impact they have on their colleagues. This self-awareness can provoke behaviour change that enables people to become more effective, more efficient, and more fulfilled at work.

The trouble is, people do not get enough feedback. A study by OfficeVibe found that 65% of people want more feedback at work than they currently get. People are hungry for feedback, and it is not just praise and recognition they seek. They want constructive feedback that will help them to learn and grow. In light of this, we have seen in recent years a shift away from feedback that is limited to annual reviews, and towards organisations building a culture that thrives on ongoing, regular feedback.

Moreover, organisations are recognising that feedback does not need to be given in secret, behind closed doors, as per traditional 360-degree feedback models. If you can create an environment where people feel comfortable giving and receiving feedback openly, it can transform your organisation.

Why feedback is important

Virtually everyone wants to be good at their job. We spend most of our time at work, and we want to make that time count. We want to be as productive, efficient, and effective as we can, and feedback is a powerful tool in enabling this. Feedback helps individuals become self-aware, to know what they are good at and what they need to work on in order to maximise their performance.

From an organisational viewpoint, a culture focused around regular feedback can create stronger individuals and more effective teams. Professional sports is a great example of this. Perhaps no other industry employs open continual feedback to the extent sports organisations do to improve teamwork and performance.

Ken Blanchard was not wrong when he said, “Feedback is the breakfast of champions”. In the same way that a good breakfast supplies us with the energy we need to get through the day, feedback is the fuel an organisation needs to perform at its best. 



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All evidence appears to suggest that people are hungry for feedback too, as it helps to:

  • Accelerate an individual's personal and professional growth
  • Give people a sense of purpose
  • Increase motivation and engagement
  • Improve communication 
  • Improve working relationships
  • Reduce conflict

It is not just positive feedback that people crave either. According to research by Harvard Business Review (HBR), 72% of people feel their performance would improve if their managers provided corrective feedback, i.e. suggestions for improvement. In fact, 57% said they would prefer corrective feedback to positive praise or recognition. We all want to be the best we can be, and constructive feedback gives us the opportunity to learn and grow.


How people respond to feedback

Feedback is an important factor in defining the quality of our relationships, both at home and at work. Strong relationships with your partner, family members, friends, and colleagues are significantly associated with several important emotional and health outcomes, including a lower risk of burnout and depression as well as enhanced job satisfaction and engagement.

However, research into the neurobiology of feedback has given us some important clues about why feedback can sometimes do more harm than good.

Social evaluation and rejection tend to activate the same neural pathways associated with physical pain. So, when we experience being evaluated, criticised, or judged, it triggers a stress reaction. It activates the part of the brain that launches the fight or flight response.

This is something we can all relate to. Just hearing the words, “Can I give you some feedback?”, can put us on edge. We have come to assume that feedback means bad news.

In a professional setting, most of us are not taught to recognise what is going well. Instead, we are taught to identify what is going wrong and to fix it. It is therefore natural that feedback can make us a bit defensive, as we want to know that we are valued and recognised, and that people see us in a positive light.

The knock-on effect is that if people feel hurt or rejected by negative feedback they receive at work, they may become less satisfied and engaged. And their performance will suffer as a result.

One of the most widely cited studies on performance feedback, carried out by Kluger and DeNisi in 1996, found that in a third of all studies on feedback interventions individual performance declined, rather than improved. Although they speculated about many reasons why feedback led to worse performance, they suggested that in most cases it is because it had led to individuals feeling hurt, demotivated, and emotionally upset.

Further research reveals there may be a tipping point for discomfort in how much negative versus positive feedback we receive. In a 2004 study by James Smither and colleagues, researchers analysed the impact of feedback ratings and narrative comments for 176 managers during a one-year period. Those who received a small number of unfavourable behaviourally-based comments improved more than other managers. Those who received a large number (relative to positive comments) significantly declined in performance more than their peers. They concluded that if the ratio of positive to negative feedback is low, individuals can become disengaged and demoralised. 


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Anonymous versus non-anonymous feedback methods

Organisations have traditionally used 360-degree feedback tools, where feedback is given anonymously. This is usually as part of an annual review process. However, this anonymous and structured approach to giving feedback is at odds with the open, feedback-rich culture that the modern workforce increasingly demands.

The pros and cons of anonymous feedback

The biggest benefit of feedback being given anonymously is that people tend to feel more comfortable sharing their opinions and observations. People can be especially uncomfortable giving feedback to those in more senior roles for fear that they will be punished in some way, or because they don’t want to seem to be treading on toes. By keeping it anonymous, people are often open and honest in their evaluations.

Recipients may also find comfort in not knowing who said what about them. If they knew someone had made a negative comment about them it may change how they act towards them, for example. By not knowing, they can take it on board and quietly adapt their future behaviour.

There are, however, many reasons why a “secret squirrel” approach to feedback may not be the best method. The reality is that while anonymity can be helpful for bringing an issue into a person’s awareness, it does not necessarily help them to solve it.

Individuals can often feel offended, hurt, or simply bewildered by the information they receive. The anonymous approach also can lead to hours of distraction as recipients try to decipher which comment was made by whom. More importantly, there is no opportunity to ask the person who gave the feedback why they scored them a certain way, or said what they did so that they can better understand it, accept it, and move forward.

Anonymity simply makes it difficult for the individual to act on the feedback they have been given. The knock on effect is that they may actually end up feeling disheartened, unmotivated, and even resentful of their colleagues. Equally, they may simply forget about it, leaving the report in a drawer and not acting on the feedback they’ve been given.


The benefits of an open feedback approach

By taking away the anonymity, feedback becomes richer, more valuable and meaningful. It encourages people to take ownership of the feedback they give, resulting in more carefully considered responses. It minimises the risk of vague or petty comments being made. People are more direct and more focused. This greater openness and clarity results in far more actionable feedback. You find people saying, “I didn’t know that person thought that about me. I need to go and have a conversation with them.”

An open feedback approach is not just about peer-to-peer feedback. It can help to create a more open, honest, and collaborative environment where everyone feels valued.

Truth Teller

Developed by t-three, Truth Teller is a 360-degree feedback tool with a difference: everyone’s feedback is open and owned, so it is absolutely clear who scored what and who said what.

Truth Teller provides immediate impact and a safe, more focused way for participants to have an open conversation with their raters about the feedback they receive. It incorporates features such as word walls, used to describe individuals when they are at their best, and when they’re not at their best. Unlike most 360-degree feedback tools, it can be customised with questions tailored to the behaviours organisations want to see in the future.

Tools like Truth Teller are the future for facilitating effective feedback in the workplace. Many organisations have found that using Truth Teller has encouraged much more openness and clarity. It has enabled individuals to take specific actions to work better with particular colleagues in a way they had not been able to do with the classic 360 model.Truth-Teller---Truth_Teller_Sample_Page

Challenges of creating an open feedback culture

Before we take a look at how to create an open feedback culture, let’s take a moment to address the challenges.

First, although people are ready to hear constructive feedback, they are not always ready, or indeed know how, to give it. A study by Harvard Business Review revealed that people tend to avoid giving negative feedback and are much more comfortable giving positive feedback.

This is not completely surprising. Giving negative or constructive feedback can be awkward and uncomfortable. We don’t know how the individual will react; if they will be hurt or upset, become defensive, or even take us seriously. And what happens if I say something that doesn’t fit with the ideology of the organisation? How will I then be perceived? People can find it particularly challenging to feed back to their managers and other more senior people, even in an anonymous setting.

Second, if people are only used to giving feedback formally, at annual reviews and appraisals, how do we shift to a culture where people feel comfortable giving feedback readily, and positively make the effort to do so on a daily basis?

Finally, how do we change people’s attitudes towards feedback? We tend to associate feedback with things that have gone wrong, but feedback can be positive too. Changing people’s mindsets to use feedback for praise and recognition as well is a vital step in encouraging an open culture.

In the next section, we look at some of the methods organisations can introduce to encourage and support people to feel more comfortable giving feedback openly - both positive and constructive. 



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Strategies for building an open feedback culture

Here, we share how organisations can create a positive, open feedback culture by incorporating some simple tactics into the workplace.

1. Encourage people to spot when things go well

Organisations need to encourage people, not just leaders and managers, but everyone at all levels of the business, to notice when somebody does something well, and tell them.

As Ken Blanchard writes, “Catching people doing things right provides satisfaction and motivates good performance.” Too often, when people are not given enough positive feedback, they become demotivated and demoralised, and when this happens, the risk is that you will start to lose good people.

One client came to us with this exact problem. People within the business were not feeling appreciated and it was causing more and more people to leave. We introduced a simple strategy to encourage people to spot when things go well and give more positive feedback.

The Order of the Gorilla

This method is based on the ‘invisible gorilla on the basketball court test’ the most famous demonstration of inattentional blindness. Inattentional blindness is the psychological phenomenon that people miss things that are right in front of their eyes when their concentration is focused elsewhere, and it helps to explain why we do not always spot when things go well.

We talked to the teams about the invisible gorilla test and instigated an initiative referred to as ‘The Order of the Gorilla’, using a stuffed toy gorilla. If someone noticed someone doing something well or something that had helped them or their team in some way, the law was that they were to give the gorilla to that person. They also had to tell them what/why; what they had done well, and why it had a positive effect. The gorilla would then sit on the person’s desk for a week.

It quickly became a talking point, where people would ask their colleagues, “What did you do to get the gorilla this week?” Slowly, people started to get better at noticing when things went well and offering praise and recognition, and people started to feel more valued and appreciated as a result.


2. Get people used to giving feedback in the moment

Simply telling people to give more feedback is not enough to shift behaviour and create new habits where feedback becomes part of their everyday practice.

One tactic we encourage clients to introduce at the end of meetings is the ‘Smiley face, Straight face’ exercise.

Smiley face, Straight face

Using a flip chart, a smiley face is drawn on one half of a page, a straight face drawn on the other, and a line is added down the middle. On the smiley face side, people share what went well. On the straight face side, people share what could go better.

Incorporating this exercise at the end of every meeting allows people to practice giving feedback in the moment so that they can hopefully incorporate it in their everyday working life. People are usually happy to give constructive feedback, or rather, feedforward. It is this “It could be even better if…” attitude that makes feedback more palatable.


3. Equip people with the tools and techniques to give constructive feedback in a positive way

People need to feel comfortable giving feedback to those they work with. The methods we have already talked about in this section are great tools for helping feedback become a part of company culture. However, to encourage people to proactively give feedback outside of specific initiatives or company meetings we need to equip them with the tools to give feedback in a positive way, so that they become comfortable doing it.


One technique for giving effective feedback is DESC - describe, express, specify, consequences. With this approach, the individual expresses to the person what they would like them to do more, less, or differently to maximise their performance.

  • Describe the perceived behaviour; “I noticed that during the meeting when I made a suggestion that you interrupted me before I could finish.”

  • Express how this behaviour impacts you; “I felt quite frustrated that you did this as I feel I wasn’t given a fair chance to express my opinion.”

  • Specify what you would like them to do differently; “Next time, I’d rather you give me a chance to express myself and acknowledge my idea, even if you don’t agree.”

  • Share the consequences of their behaviour change; “I think this will demonstrate to everyone in the team that new ideas are welcomed.” It’s natural that a person will want to understand why you are asking for a change to their behaviour, so you need to back it up by explaining how it will it will have a positive impact, in this case, not just on you and them, but the whole team.

If people have a framework for giving feedback, they will be more comfortable and confident giving it, and more likely to incorporate it in their everyday practice.


Action points to get started

The power of feedback is that it helps people to be the best they can be. It provides the golden thread that guides people towards personal and professional growth.

However, embedding an open feedback culture cannot happen overnight. It takes time to get everyone in the organisation feeling comfortable giving (and receiving) feedback openly.

Here are some actions you can get started on straight away;

  • Encourage people to give both positive and constructive feedback in the moment. Feedback does not need to be limited to annual reviews and other formal structures.

  • Consider alternatives to traditional 360-degree feedback. Taking away the anonymity from formal feedback processes reinforces to people that it is ok to give feedback openly.

  • Incorporate simple structures where people can practice giving feedback. These do not have to include The Order of the Gorilla or the Smiley face, Straight face exercise - find something that resonates with your people and works for your company. The important thing to remember is that practice builds confidence and creates habits.

  • Teach people how to use feedback techniques, like DESC and what/why, both to help people feel more comfortable giving feedback and to ensure it is delivered effectively. You might want to consider holding workshops where people can practice honing their feedback skills in a safe environment.

  • Encourage managers to ask for feedback from their teams. They could ask “Are you getting what you need from me to succeed?” Managers need to show that they are open to constructive feedback as this then empowers people to speak up.