Feedback: ’tis better to give than to receive

When our VP of Human Resources called me and said that she had some “feedback” for me I just had a sinking feeling. I asked if we could set up some other time or if we could do it over the phone?

No and no.

So, I headed down to go ‘visit,’ because I was reassured it ‘shouldn’t take too long.’ Uh Huh…

  1. The WHOLE walk to her office was unusually gray and cloudy.
  2. Felt like I was going to the principal’s office.
  3. I didn’t DO anything wrong. Well, sometimes I can be a little direct and that can hurt people’s feelings but they should just GROW UP!
  4. Besides, if someone is that upset, they should come to me first.
  6. Let’s just get this over with.
  7. Dammit.

When I got to her office, I told her about my reaction as I walked to her office. She smiled…and then started laughing. She just wanted to thank me for presenting to her team about what was happening with my group and how the HR team could be great partners with us.

We both laughed about the gap between my reaction and her intent.

And how that word ‘feedback’ carries such power. In fact, she admitted she also hates to hear that she is about to get some ‘feedback.’

The meanings of feedback

That experience got me thinking: If that was my perception as an executive, what did that say about the company? About me? ‘Feedback’ was associated with ‘trouble,’ disciplinary actions, and maybe, just maybe, passive-aggressive anonymity.

Webster has these two definitions of the word ‘feedback’ and I think they capture the gap between our HR VP’s ‘intent’ and my ‘reaction’:

  • Definition 1: Helpful information that is given to someone to say what can be done to improve (that was the VP’s intent).
  • Definition 2: An annoying unwanted sound caused by signals being returned to an electronic sound system (that’s how I reacted to it: ‘annoying unwanted…’).

Let’s play a game

Right now, imagine someone you respect sends you a text message with the words ‘Can I give you some feedback?’ Write down the first 3 words that pop into your mind.

Now, think about someone you want to give feedback to. You have to call them in 5 minutes and deliver that feedback. Write down the first 3 words that come to mind as you think about delivering that phone call.

The problem, you can say, is the reactions and behaviors that happen around that feedback. Past experiences help to create these reactions, reinforce associations, and give the word tremendous power.

We all know we have to give feedback but how often do we TRAIN this skill? And we sure as heck know we are going to receive it, and yet, do we train this skill of receiving? And when do you give feedback? When do you get feedback? These are skills as well: timing your feedback.

Here is the real twisted thing about the difficulty of feedback: its difficulty is so at odds with its value. Everyone needs it. Everyone wants it! If you were sucking at your job, wouldn’t you want someone to say, “Hey, you suck at this… and let’s work together to make sure you stop sucking.” Or if you see your boss doing something that is hurting morale, don’t you think that she wants to know?




Very simply, giving and receiving feedback requires openness, empathy, courage. All of these skills can be trained, and these skills positively shift engagement, productivity, and results. (Seriously, there is a bunch of science on this. See for example the recent meta-analytic review of studies on the effects of team training in healthcare by Hughes et al (2016). Team training saves lives in that context.)

We would love to hear about your experiences (anonymously if you like). Or if you have any questions about how to best harness feedback, please hit me up.

Also, check out this great, data-based dive into what kinds of feedback people want and how we often fall short.


Windust, J. (2015). The psychology behind better workplace feedback (15 surprising facts). Retrieved from:

Hughes, A. M., Gregory, M. E., Joseph, D. L., Sonesh, S. C., Marlow, S. L., Lacerenza, C. N., Benishek, L. E., King, H. B., & Salas, E. (2016, June 16). Saving Lives: A Meta-Analysis of Team Training in Healthcare. Journal of Applied Psychology. Advance online publication.

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