How to make feedback your superpower (and a mini challenge)

I’ve been listening to the Beyond Busy podcast, hosted by Graham Allcott. If you haven’t delved into it yet, I’d really recommend it.

An episode I listened to recently struck a chord, and I think it’s something worth considering for all agency leaders and founders. The topic? Giving regular, effective feedback.

In this particular ep, Graham speaks to cognitive scientist Therese Huston, the author of Let’s Talk: Make Effective Feedback Your Superpower about why regular feedback is so hard to provide, and some tips on how to tackle it to propel your team and business forward.

There’s a lot of great stuff in this article, my advice is to pick out a couple of tips that really resonate with you rather than try to absorb it all.

Many of us give feedback fairly sporadically; mostly when work is either outstanding or perceived to be lacking (so called ‘problem child’ feedback) – or indeed we wait until the annual review to let an employee know how we think things are going. Therese discusses the importance of regular, effective feedback to drive your team forward. She also touched on a number of really interesting research findings around feedback from a manger/employee perspective and gender bias semantics.

‘37% of managers dread giving feedback, but 67% of employees want more feedback’

Why is feedback so hard to receive?

According to Doug Stone & Sheila Heen who wrote the best-selling book ‘Thanks for the Feedback’  it’s because we are completely conflicted about it.

Why the conflict? Feedback sits at the crux of two human needs:

  • The need to learn and grow. This one is hard wired into us, it’s why we take up hobbies when we retire and why we play the same games again and again to get a better score, we want to do better.
  • The need to be accepted, respected and loved, just the way we are now. Feedback often suggests that how you are now isn’t quite A OK which makes us reticent to take it on board when we do receive it.

Feedback plays to both these conflicting human needs, hence the difficulty in both giving and receiving it.

Three major reasons team members might reject feedback

Most of us listen to feedback through something called ‘wrong spotting’, which essentially means that if we can find anything wrong with the feedback we’re being given we will simply set it aside as irrelevant, or ‘wrong’.

  • Truth triggers – negative feedback, however accurate it might be, often plays to so called ‘truth triggers’ – things we don’t want to acknowledge or believe to be right.
  • Relationship issues – a team member doesn’t trust the feedback giver’s motivations or expertise (They want to get me sacked / What do they know about it?), or perhaps they feel under appreciated by them (imagine you had covered for someone whilst they were off sick, and then when they return they chastise you for an unfinished project rather than thanking you for the cover). It’s interesting to note that if a team member feels underappreciated then almost all feedback is defeated.
  • Identity triggers – we all go through life ‘knowing’ things about ourselves. Feedback is threatening as it has the potential to impact on how you see yourself. We don’t want to hear it, and so we set it aside.

There are three big thinker views on what feedback should be, ranging from compassionate, to brutal, to positivity only:

Radical Candour Perspective

  • Care personally, challenge directly
  • Care about your team member but challenge them directly
  • Focus on having good intentions as a manager

Radical Transparency

A ‘challenge directly’ approach which requires all feedback to be brutally honest about what people are good and bad at. This type of feedback plays on sorting people by their strengths and weaknesses only.

Marcus Buckingham & Lesley Goodall ‘Nine Lies about Work’

The authors of Nine Lies about Work reject the idea that people need negative feedback of any kind. It works on a ‘praise only’ approach.

More than just a shit-sandwich

In her book, Therese identifies the different types of feedback managers should be aiming to provide, citing that in order to give great feedback that lands with the receiver the giver must always be aware of the type of feedback they are trying to proffer:


This is what most of us think of as praise, recognition, how you’re having impact. This type of feedback focuses on the things you want your team to keep doing.

‘You are already fantastic at communicating with client, I need you to lean in to that superpower’

‘When you do this/that, you make my job so much easier’


This type of feedback focusses on giving advice as a means of critiquing.

‘Here’s a way I’d like you to move towards to make your presentations even more captivating…’


This type of feedback looks at where your team member stands in comparison to others and in relation to the goals they have.

‘Compared to other people on the team your presentations are equally as content rich, but you could try XYZ to make them more engaging …’

‘If you’re aiming for promotion in 3-months time you’ll need to achieve XYZ’

Swap ‘Feedback’ for ‘Advice’

Therese’s research found that you can instantly improve the success and impact of your feedback if you are able to identify if your team member is looking for direct feedback or if they are actually looking for advice.

For example:

Feedback: Your presentation was fine, no complaints.

Advice: The content was good, perhaps next time you could move around a little more, maybe call on the board members in the audience to engage with them – I think that would be great.’

This simple tip is a great way to change and add to effective feedback.

Listening when giving feedback

Too often we go into feedback discussions with a script, a sort of ‘I need to say these things in this way to get people to listen and understand’. What people seem to actually want is a really good listener.

Here’s a simple strategy for listening

  • give yourself two goals when you go into feedback conversations
  • when the conversation is done, can you say what was most important to that person was and;
  • can you tell how the person felt about the conversation?
  • if you can then you are on your way to becoming a really good listener and better at giving feedback

Around 90% of us think we have high emotional intelligence, when in fact it’s more about 10%. The truth is we struggle to figure out what people mean when they give feedback.

Stop asking questions which start with the word ‘why’

This was probably my favourite tip from the podcast. People get defensive when you ask a why question.

Why the blue shirt?’

‘Why would you do that?’

‘Why exactly did you think that would work?’

Simply put, ‘Why’ gets people’s backs up.

During feedback discussions try swapping ‘Why’ for a ‘What’ or ‘How’ question.

‘How does that help you achieve what you want?’

‘What was your goal there?’

If you can get people to identify their goals, you can then tackle how they can achieve them without defensiveness. People want you to meet them where their goals are and getting to that place transforms feedback into something that is about the team member.

A simple reframed question such as;

‘What were you hoping would happen?’ when talking about an event that didn’t go so well will help you identify the team members intentions, and it will also allow you insight into how self aware that person is. Do they have situational awareness? Were their expectations way off? All these things will help mange that person in future.

State your good intentions

When you’re delivering coaching or evaluation style feedback, always state your good intentions before you begin.  Say ‘I want to see you succeed’ / ‘I want to see you do your best work’. Whilst it might sound cheesy, stating your good intentions helps the other person recognise you want to help them achieve their goals and research has shown that feedback is received much more positively as a result.

Be aware: we have many more critical feedback adjectives than positive ones. Recognise this and try to counteract the negativity bias.

Gender differences – be aware of your gender bias feedback semantics

A Harvard study found that feedback adjectives had major biases.

Language for women almost always struck upon ‘kindness’, ‘compassion’, ‘likeability’ and ‘helpfulness’. Whilst men received feedback with content like ‘game changer’ ‘innovator’ and ‘visionary’.

Who will stand out as promotion material? It’s an inadvertent slip many of us can make, so try to pick yourself up on it.

The 4 Coins Challenge – a simple way to encourage yourself to give feedback

  • Keep four coins in your left pocket
  • Each time you give feedback, transfer a coin over to your right pocket
  • Try to give feedback at least four times a day

Feedback helps your team identify what they are good at. Effective, regular feedback really is a superpower. It can have a huge impact on those around you and snowball out into the productivity and performance of your business.

I’m moving my Rambling On newsletter to arrive weekly. It will contain just three things which I think interested business leaders and founders will enjoy. One piece of content from myself, a curated article from someone cleverer than me, and a curious article/video/musing that will allow you a moment to consider something likely have no necessity for, but will be a happier person for consuming. You can sign up (and unsubscribe at any time) here.  



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