Be brave on feeding back


By Deborah Appleby, Associate at The Caffeine Partnership. Leadership coach and expert in influence and impact consultancy.

Recently I have been running full day leadership courses on, “Giving and Receiving Feedback” which are, as you can imagine, pretty intensive days that touch all sorts of raw nerves and often difficult emotions.

One thing that strikes me is how quickly people go to the critical and how most of us expect feedback to be negative. We wait for the ‘but…’ or proverbial shit sandwich. It is no wonder that giving or receiving feedback at work is often avoided as it takes courage and we tend to play safe and steer clear of discomfort around messy feelings. It feels safer and easier to leave it to appraisals or formal reviews. However, feedback needs to be ongoing and regular if it is to have the impact it deserves.

Do we acknowledge the “good stuff” enough? Do we make giving positive feedback part of our working practise? I don’t mean the superficial “you are so brilliant” type of feedback; that kind of insincerity turns us right off straight away. I mean the time and care to give honest acknowledgement of a quality, experience or task that someone has or does that you truly value or have appreciated? In my experience if this is done well and with care it builds real TRUST and is a truly great gift to receive. We don’t do nearly enough of it.

“It is no wonder that giving or receiving feedback at work is often avoided as it takes courage and we tend to play safe and steer clear of discomfort around messy feelings.”
In the maze of feedback, it is easier to remember the negative and hardly hear the positive, so many of the messages that we then tell ourselves are critical and undermining to our confidence. They are not helpful or self-affirming. Often these messages we hold about ourselves are based on critical feedback from way back when, that has stuck with us, so we walk around holding that negative snapshot as part of who we are. We feel less than perfect and it undermines our performance.

When it comes to difficult feedback, most people know where their Achilles heel is. They are familiar with their own gremlins. However, if someone touches a raw nerve, the threat of fight or flight rises up and defence barriers come up to self-protect.

So no wonder the area of feedback is in minefield territory.

In the workplace difficult feedback given poorly can make or break relationships, destroy cultures, create bad atmospheres and upset teams, let alone the effect it may have on the person receiving it.

And lack of feedback or avoidance of it altogether has a negative impact too. No-one says anything or addresses poor performance, so tensions build and suddenly are released which can have devastating effects. People need to know the truth or have a sense of how they are doing. We all do, even if we do know our foibles. We need reminding. And it needs to be ongoing and regular.

So what can you do to develop a healthy feedback culture?


It takes encouragement to get people to give useful feedback to each other. They will say things like “It was really good” which is not specific or helpful to the receiver. People often avoid feedback, through discomfort, or lack of habit, or they can just come straight in with a sledgehammer without thinking about the effect. That is not radical candour, that is thoughtlessness.

What did the person do – specifically – that was good or not so good and why? What was the effect of their actions? What do they need to stop doing, start doing, continue to do? Give them tangible examples not platitudes.


As a development coach you need to have empathy and be able to offer techniques and strategies that are practical and easy to implement if the person wants to change. Most of all, your skill is in listening to the whole person, not just at the obvious surface level, it’s the stuff beneath the surface that is much more interesting. Then be curious enough to ask the deep questions that promote shifts in thinking or feelings or perceptions.


When feedback is given poorly and defences come up we are in dangerous territory. The skill lies in giving it so it lands with impact and is not frightening. It needs to be heard. So timing is important, as is the context and boundaries in which it is held.

Feedback is a vital tool for all of us in every context every day in business and at home. Get more conscious about giving the positive and be very clear about your intention when giving and receiving it when it is not an easy message.

Like any skill, giving and receiving feedback is something we can practise. If we learn the art of humanity and take care of each other with more thought and less rush we can make it a regular habit – and avoid the minefields.


Interested in senior leadership coaching? Find out how Caffeine work here.