Feedback is a Gift – Really?

By: Helene Tracey, M.Ed.

In the sincerest effort to help another, know the complexities associated with feedback. Resist the enthusiasm conjured up by gift giving and the expectation that gifts are met with gratitude. Always provide a gift that is thoughtfully chosen and caringly given. The receiver of a gift sets its value.

An early definition of feedback according to Merriam-Webster did not apply to people, but rather to machines:

“the return to the input of a part of the output of a machine, system, or process (as for producing changes in an electronic circuit that improve performance or in an automatic control device that provides self-corrective action.”

Somewhere along the line, someone applied this idea to people thereby creating one of the greatest interpersonal challenges: how to give feedback that isn’t resisted or rejected. Google “giving feedback” and a myriad of models to effectively give feedback appears. An old time favorite, the “sandwich” model, is recognized by many HR pros to be widely used and vastly ineffective. They explain its flaws: Upon hearing feedback is coming, the recipient braces for it and misses the first “positive” comment. Then, and now teetering between the virtual pieces of feedback bread, the person is told the “critical” piece of the feedback and uneasiness causes the recipient to miss the message, resist it, or worse debate it. Finally, the last “positive” comment is made and is inevitably not heard at all.

Why so many models to bestow a gift? Why isn’t this gift universally and enthusiastically embraced? Clues can be found if we further explore the notion of resistance to feedback. In his article, Managing with the Brain in Mind, David Rock expounds on what happens when we hear: “Can I give you some advice (feedback)?” ( He writes this question puts people on the defensive because they perceive the person offering advice as claiming superiority—a challenge to their status. Rock cites the findings of three researchers whose independent discoveries reveal the powerful neurological effects status has on our health and performance. Rock explains, “. . . we are biologically programmed to care about status because it favors our survival.” So, neurological factors likely drive resistance to receive feedback.

Curiously, numerous examples can be shared by employees, leaders and HR professionals of the benefits they have witnessed or experienced themselves of giving critical feedback according to a model and improvements occurring. What explains these successes? Neuroscientists tell us other factors like caring relationships decrease the resistance associated with getting feedback and increase the effectiveness of the feedback conversation. Consider a best friend providing feedback. Because there is a belief she has her BFF’s back, the BFF likely does not resist the feedback because there is no threat nor is there a challenge to status.

What happens if the relationship is not necessarily a caring one and feedback are given strictly according to a model? Then, a likely result is the erosion of trust and withdraw; perhaps this is a factor in employee engagement rates that have hovered at about 70% for the last few years.  Possibly, the desire to know what to do more of, less of, or instead of is so great that people adopt a “no pain, no gain” attitude towards feedback and report benefits regardless of the neurological side effects including increased stress. (According to the research mentioned above, Cortisol, a stress-related hormone is an accurate biological marker for the threat response, and it is released when we experience feelings of low status.) Maybe truly wanting to improve outweighs the sting of formula-driven feedback and not being able to stomach sugarcoated feedback leaves employees with no choice but to accept model-driven feedback even the kind that comes virtually wrapped in a bow and called a gift.

If model-driven feedback loses its efficacy if not delivered with care, does ratio-driven feedback work better? The Magic Ratio of 5:1 from a Harvard study reports the number of positive to negative comments was the greatest factor affecting the success of teams. If that study is to compare to the Rock article, one wonders if the nature of the comments not the number of them is the actual determinant of success. (All the comments cited in the online article are non-threatening and do not challenge status. (See

Feedback has complexities. Nature has wired us to resist it as a survival strategy. Using those two facts as a foundation, be clear on how your feedback is a gift: will it help? Is it information only you can provide? Is it of great consequence not just the intolerance of an idiosyncrasy? That is, start with questions, then chose thoughtfully and give with care.

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