Stop Teaching People How to Give Feedback

Want a feedback culture? Join the club. But how does HR help create this? Most organizations start by teaching managers how to give feedback effectively. The logic follows that if they have the skill, then they’ll go around giving all sorts of helpful feedback to readily receptive employees who will use it to improve and pay it forward in a never-ending positive spiral of development and enrichment. Sounds lovely, doesn’t it?

Problem is: I’ve tried it. It doesn’t work.

Why not? Because this approach starts in the wrong spot! There are 4 traits that have to exist to have a strong feedback culture, and we typically need to foster each. Harkening back to my consulting days, I’ve of course created a 2×2:

Screen Shot 2014-08-25 at 5.15.47 PM

Most of us start and stop our efforts to build a feedback culture in the upper left. We train people on how to give good feedback, and then wonder why these skilled providers still avoid these conversations like the plague. The reason: the most skilled provider in the world will have a miserable conversation with someone who doesn’t want feedback, and/or doesn’t know how to receive it.

Instead, build your feedback culture in a program aimed at fostering each of these traits in the organization. And order your program counter-clockwise, like this:

Screen Shot 2014-08-25 at 5.15.57 PM

Will to Receive: This requires creating the psychological safety among colleagues to be vulnerable, to admit imperfections, and to embrace learning and improving. We’re typically happy to receive positive feedback, but cringe at the thought of constructive feedback. Educate employees on the value of constructive feedback, and seek out and destroy habits that erode psychological safety. Amy Edmonson’s book Teaming has some great advice on how to do this.

Skill to Receive: Even if we want feedback, we don’t always know how to receive it in such a way that encourages more. We get triggered and defensive if we think the feedback is unfair, inaccurate, or not relevant. And sometimes we forget that getting feedback that is unfair, inaccurate, or not relevant is still really valuable and that we will be better off hearing all of it! Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen have a fantastic book on this subject, called Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well.

Skill to Give: Here is where most of us are quite comfortable. There’s no shortage of experts out there who can teach your employees effective ways to deliver feedback, and it’s certainly an important part of this process (albeit the third—not first—step). Chris Argyris has some good work on this topic, but my favorite is Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most by Stone, Patton, and Heen.

Will to Give: Finally, you need to foster the institutional desire to share feedback with one another. In steps 1-3, you’ve removed some of the disincentives to giving feedback (the recipient doesn’t want it or won’t receive it well). Remove the rest (e.g., the hierarchy doesn’t allow for it, it’s culturally not appropriate, etc.) and create incentives for it (recognize those who give it, have leaders go out and ask for it, etc.). No book to recommend here—if you’ve accomplished the first 3 steps, this one is easy.

Building in this order should give you a greater chance at creating a feedback culture in your organization. But you still have to do each step well. Got any advice on best practices for each step? Hit me in the comments!

FOT Background Check

Ben Olds
Ben works in HR/OD at Merrimack Pharmaceuticals, a Cambridge company dedicated to the simple goal of trying to cure cancer… no big deal! Ben’s on his second career, having spent his first in business/strategy consulting, mostly with Bain & Co and Monitor Group, which basically just means he relies on MS Excel to solve virtually any problem he faces. If he’s not coaching or working with colleagues on their approach to leadership, he’s helping teams create effective dynamics or planning a recognition program to motivate employees. And sometimes, he’s chasing his wife around the ice hockey rink in his weekly pick-up game, or playing tennis, squash, skiing, hiking, mountain biking, or anything else to expend his nervous energy!


  1. Kimberlee, Esq. says:

    This is fantastic! I think that the lack of feedback, in general, is like the “underlying problem” of management. This gives an entirely different framework to examine, and hopefully fix, the problem than I was considering before. I’d had all 4 parts on my radar, but I can do some more development on the will & skill to receive. Thanks!

  2. Kristy says:

    I went through a period of time where I solicited feedback from peers/leaders and they always told me how coachable I was. Then after about 3 years of constant reflection and critiques, I decided it was time to pull back. I had reached a point where I needed to exude confidence in my abilities in order to gain respect from others. It was a great experience overall and it allowed me to build relationships I wouldn’t have been able to otherwise. However, it’s key for leaders to sense when someone needs to be appreciated so they don’t wear their associates down with coaching.

  3. Andy Porter says:

    Great post! I totally agree that there needs to be a willingness to get feedback and without that nothing else really matters. I also think there are two other dimensions to consider. One is stage of career. For myself I know that I’m much better at receiving feedback today than 10 years ago. I’m comfortable with my skill set and also comfortable admitting what I don’t know. Earlier in my career I was less open. Probably just means you’d have to consider how ‘will’ might show up differently depending on stage. Second point is the type of job and/or organization you work for. If I’m working for a company that’s not going to be a long-term play or isn’t investing in me, why would I have any will to get feedback? It would be more of a hassle I would think. Anyway, great post!

  4. Awesome post Ben!

    Initially I recoiled at the the idea of not skilling managers up on providing feedback – I then saw that you weren’t really suggesting that, but instead focus should be given to establishing the will & the skills for receiving feedback. This is a great suggestion!

    In terms of best practices around the skills to give feedback, there are some videos here: – I’ll keep an eye out for best practice on the other 3 areas!

    All the best,


  5. John says:

    Great article, we often forget that feedback = communication, and both sides have to be ready and open for it to happen. I believe technology can support a better flow of timely feedback, microfeedback is also less stress-inducing and easier to digest.

  6. Marc Effron says:

    I think feedback give you the opportunity to correct your mistake. Great post. Thanks for sharing

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