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How to get feedback right

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Business Spotlight - epaper ⋅ Ausgabe 12/2022 vom 23.11.2022


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How do you usually respond when someone asks if they may give you some feedback? My standard answer used to be: “Yes, sure.” — even though I wasn’t always ready to hear it.

Let me give you an example. My boss once gave me some feedback. He said: “I appreciate that you used humour in your presentation. That’s good. It loosens up the atmosphere and breaks the ice, but be careful. You might not be taken seriously.”

I wasn’t quite sure what to think or how to react. Was he happy with my presentation? Should I change something? If so, what exactly? I was left feeling confused and a little angry. The next time he had some feedback for me, I knew what was coming, so I asked him: “What do you want me to do specifically?” It turned out that he had a clear plan in mind.

What’s feedback? And what’s not?

What my boss said is not feedback at all. It’s an order or command. What’s worse, the use of the ...

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... word “feedback” in cases like this means that many employees don’t like getting feedback any more. If I just mention the word in my workshops and seminars, people roll their eyes. That’s a real pity because, if it’s done right, feedback can be very rewarding.

It’s time to re-establish the good reputation of feedback by explaining how it’s supposed to work. But if it’s not someone telling you what they think of your behaviour and how you should behave differently, then what is it exactly?

Feedback should allow people to see their blind spots. If you ask for feedback on your presentation style, you want to know if you’re coming across the way you hoped to or about certain things you’re doing that you might not be aware of. Ultimately, you want to improve, so feedback should be about you and no one else.

However, when people want to give feedback, it’s usually about them. They feel angry or frustrated because one or more of their needs aren’t being satisfied.

Let’s say a boss considers punctuality and reliability important, and feels angry when a colleague arrives late to a meeting. Afterwards, the boss might say to the colleague: “Can I give you some feedback? I noticed that you were late. I need reliability from my team, so please be on time in future.”

That’s a clear way of explaining the problem and how the boss wants the colleague to solve it. As long as it’s expressed in a non-threatening manner, it’s perfectly reasonable to talk to each other like that. But it’s not feedback.

American psychologist Thomas Gordon distinguishes between feedback and honest communication. Gordon coined the term “problem owner”. By asking: “Whose problem is it?”, you can easily find out if it’s feedback or not.

Let’s say Anna is your boss, and you’ve just given a presentation in your team meeting. Afterwards, you ask Anna how she experienced the presentation. You want to learn how to make it even better next time. In this case, you have the problem. You ask Anna for her feedback, and she might say you spoke a little too fast, for example, and she had trouble following at times. She suggests deliberately slowing down so that others can follow you more easily.

Giving perfect feedback

Observation: What did I see/hear/taste/ smell? What could a camera capture?

Effect: What was the effect on me? How did I feel?

Suggestion: If you want to have another effect like X, try this…

What’s very important is that Anna has no agenda — other than to be helpful. She explains her observation and how she felt, and provides a suggestion. There’s no expectation that you must implement this new behaviour. That’s pure feedback.

However, if Anna had come to you after the presentation and said: “Can I give you some feedback? You were quite nervous and talked much too fast. Please present in a more professional way next time.” Besides other shortcomings, the big difference here is that there’s an inherent expectation in the statement. Anna expects you to present in what she considers to be a more professional way, otherwise…

In this case, it is Anna who has the problem and wants you to change. Rather than feedback, it’s a straightforward command. You might say this is just semantics, but it’s more than that. Often, the latter situation is called “feedback”. And it’s not surprising that many teams don’t want to hear it.

“It’s time to re-establish the good reputation of feedback”

What can you do?

There’s an exercise that can increase the awareness of proper feedback. And it’s fun, too. First, you need something to give feedback on. Usually, I have people present a few slides — either slides they know or we play “PowerPoint Karaoke”. Google any topic combined with “ext:pptx”, and you’ll find a wide range of slides to present. Let each person present for two to three minutes.

Then, the presenter gets feedback. Everyone is asked to follow the feedback process I described (observationeffect-suggestion). Many people are used to giving feedback such as: “You looked nervous. Be more relaxed.” This means it can be a significant change for them to apply the new structure.

If you act as the moderator, be sure to jump in immediately if somebody fails to follow the structure or if somebody is interpreting or judging instead of sharing their observation. After everyone has had a turn, you can do a quick round of reflection and ask your team members how they felt while giving and receiving feedback.

This little exercise is not only fun for the team, it also provides the basis for future feedback conversations. If you are the leader, you lead by example. And I know this can be tough, but make it clear for yourself when you talk to employees: Do you want them to change or do you want them to learn?

If you want to help them to learn, and you have no specific expectation, then give them great feedback and watch them grow.


The feedback process of observationeffect-suggestion follows the principles of non-violent communication (NVC). This may sound a little dramatic, but a poor choice of words can be hurtful and seriously damage a relationship. NVC is a way of expressing something without judgement or accusation.

Consider this example: “You weren’t listening!” This is not an observation but an accusation and expresses judgement about someone’s behaviour. NVC, however, remains neutral: “While I was speaking in our meeting, I saw that you were looking at your phone. That was a bit distracting.”


Giving positive feedback

• Ithought your use of infographics was very effective.

• Ireally liked the way you engaged the audience.

• You’ve done an excellent job of explaining the central issue.

Giving negative feedback

• Ithink your body language could be a little more positive.

• At several points in the presentation, it was difficult to hear you.

• Afew passages are quite technical and not so easy to follow.

Making suggestions

• Have you considered timing yourself while you read it through?

• Perhaps you could reduce the total number of slides.

• Why not start with a short overview of what you’re going to talk about?

“If it’s done right, feedback can be very rewarding”