Feedback, Unpacked

“I have some feedback for you.” 

Cue the gut reaction: A pang of fear. A wave of anxiety. The instinct to tense, defensiveness rising in the throat. Bracing for what’s about to come next.

What comes next could be five positives about our work. It doesn’t matter. We don’t hear them. We’re waiting for the one criticism like it’s a hammer coming down.

Our relationship with feedback is complicated.

In feedback scenarios, most of us have a default towards discomfort. And yet, we do want to know where we stand—a few words of affirmation to tell us how we’re doing.

We want feedback, but we also don’t.  Which is worth unpacking. So long as we’re in relationships, working on teams, and striving toward goals together, we’re going to face feedback conversations.

  • What’s at stake in those conversations? 

  • What if feedback was for us, not against us?

  • What can we do to make our workplaces feedback-friendly?

These are questions for leaders and employees alike, and engaging with them can change an entire work culture for the better. (I’ve seen it.) 

This week, we’ll talk about how and where to start.

First Things First: What’s Really at Stake?

At heart, our natural resistance to feedback is a reaction to judgment—the fear that our pride, identity, or value is in question. 

Our value and identity are never really at stake, and we stand to lose more than our pride. In that gut, fight-or-flight response to feedback, we often fail to recognize:

Without feedback, there is no growth. Without feedback, we’re at risk of never realizing our full potential.

Those are the real stakes, and in order to receive feedback and reach that full potential, our best bet is to adapt a growth mindset.

What If Feedback Was For You?   

This summer I joined a gym. I’m used to exercising on my own—not in a class with upbeat music and a trainer observing the mechanics and intensity of my workout. 

This week it occurred to me: When the trainer comes over to correct me, I don’t feel threatened. I don’t feel defensive or embarrassed. I actually appreciate and want the feedback. 

I started to consider why:

  • Growth mindset: I go to the gym with the express purpose of improving myself. Showing up with that mindset prepares me to receive corrective feedback. I want it; that’s why I’m there.

  • Positive environment: The music, camaraderie, and consistent personal attention build positivity. We are all there because we care. 

  • Trust: The trainer wants me to have a positive experience and improve my fitness. She also doesn’t want me to get hurt. I’m confident that we  share those common interests, so it’s easy to trust where feedback is coming from.

The gym has reminded me that it’s possible to have a relationship with feedback that is non-threatening. 

When we believe that feedback is for us—for our good—we can receive it without fear, anxiety, or defensiveness. 

In turn, what we once resisted becomes a source of valuable insight.

The Feedback-Friendly Workplace

So we have a vision of the feedback-friendly workplace. 

We know we want to work in an environment (like the gym) where it’s comfortable to give and receive feedback—where everyone enjoys the feedback loop of personal insight followed by growth. 

How does that happen? 

Having reflected on my workplace culture experiences, I see four crucial characteristics of positive feedback. 

1. Timeliness

If you’re a feedback-giver, don’t delay. Proximity to the actual situation or context keeps feedback simple and direct (as opposed to emotionally escalated or overly aggressive). Keep a regular cadence of feedback—more frequent, less formal—which normalizes feedback conversations. Meanwhile, your employees and coworkers aren’t living with the anxiety of ‘How am I doing?’

2. Clarity

Be specific. Take time to explain where the feedback is coming from and how what’s at hand can be improved to fit the intended vision. One of the best litmus tests for clarity is to ask yourself, “Is this feedback actionable?”

3. Ratio

Keep a positive ratio between affirmative and corrective feedback. According to Tamra Chandler, author of Feedback (and Other Dirty Words): Why We Fear It, How to Fix It, , 5:1 is a good ratio to shoot for if you want to build and sustain a foundation of trust and connection. After all, one of the most effective ways to disrupt the natural discomfort of feedback is to over-index the positive. Instead of always pointing out the problems, or even pairing affirmative and corrective feedback, make sure to give plenty of stand-alone affirmation and positive encouragement. 

4. Intent

Recognize your shared goals. Convey that you have your coworker’s best interest in mind. Don’t give feedback that’s reactive, which is really venting. Be supportive, not a micromanager. Don’t stay hands-off with the assumption of ‘You better get it right and not bother me with problems.’ Interact often—and not just for the sake of feedback. It builds trust.

I had the privilege of hearing Tamra talk about feedback this week as part of The People-First Economy Online Summit. She left us with this vision:

Imagine a world where we let go of fear and embrace the help others offer us, and where our energy, time, and momentum is always oriented toward the future. Getting better together. Imagine.

  • How do you feel when someone says they have feedback for you?

  • What mindset tips help you to receive feedback well?

  • What does feedback look like for your team?  

As always, feel free to share! I’d love to hear your thoughts.


Counterstories is a blog collaboration between conflict resolution specialist Steve Beck and writer/editor Rachael Schmid. If you have a powerful story of forgiveness or peacemaking (or just want to share your thoughts on this post), we’d love to hear from you. Reach out at admin@cstevebeck.com.