What Good Feedback Really Looks Like

According to a recent Harvard Business Review cover story, it’s rarely useful to give feedback to colleagues. The authors argue that constructive criticism won’t help people excel and that, when you highlight someone’s shortcomings, you actually hinder their learning. They say that managers should encourage employees to worry less about their weaknesses and instead focus on their strengths.

Our research and experience at the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) lead us to a different conclusion: Feedback — both positive and negative — is essential to helping managers enhance their best qualities and address their worst so they can excel at leading.

There are several ideas in the article with which we agree:

  • Harsh feedback does not help people thrive and excel. Indeed, effective criticism needs to be delivered with respect and care. Frequent or exclusively negative comments can spark defensive reactions that cloud perceptions and dampen motivation.
  • Positive feedback is critical for learning. People are often quick to notice what’s wrong, but it’s equally important to pay attention to and provide input on what is working to support development.
  • Telling someone how to fix a problem is often the wrong approach. You’ll foster more learning by asking questions that stimulate reflection and coaching people into exploration and experimentation.

However, we disagree with other points:

  • People are unreliable assessors of others and thus give feedback that is more distortion than truth. Feedback is never purely objective since it is delivered from a human being with a unique perspective. However, for a leader, knowing how others see and experience her is incredibly valuable since those people make decisions based on their perceptions—decisions about who to listen to, cooperate with, trust, support and promote.
  • Feedback about weaknesses creates a threat that inhibits learning. Research indicates that 360-feedback recipients who get unfavorable ratings tend to improve their performance more than others. And, in CCL’s work, we’ve found successful executives credit all types of potentially threatening events (e.g., horrible bosses, making a business mistake, being demoted, and firing employees) as key drivers of their development.
  • People should just focus on their strengths. Our work has shown that ignoring one’s weaknesses is one of the greatest contributors to individual derailment in organizations. No matter how well-tuned a leader’s strengths are, one unaddressed “fatal flaw” (e.g., arrogance, inability to build a team or difficulty adapting to a new context) can lead to failure — particularly if it is unacknowledged by the individual.
  • You can best help your organization by getting better at the things you are already good at. This assumes that everyone is already good at the right things — that they have the critical skills and competencies that organizations need to succeed. Our colleague Jean Leslie’s research demonstrates that this is rarely the case. In fact, she found that leaders are weakest in the four most important future leadership skills—inspiring commitment, leading employees, strategic planning and change management.

When you focus only on strengths, you lull people into believing there are no areas in which they need to improve. It also lets managers off the hook for fostering necessary — and sometimes difficult — development in their reports and co-workers, which ultimately compromise organizational effectiveness.

So, instead of encouraging people to avoid negative feedback, we should focus on how to deliver negative feedback in ways that minimize the threat response. At CCL, we teach an approach to delivering feedback called Situation-Behavior-Impact (SBI) to address both strengths and weaknesses in a clear, specific, professional and caring way.

Feedback providers first note the time and place in which a behavior occurred. Then they describe the behavior — what they saw and heard. The final step is to describe the impact the behavior had in terms of the feedback providers’ thoughts, feelings or actions.

Here’s an example: “In our staff meeting this morning when we were discussing strategies for funding the new initiative, you interrupted Jessica while she was talking and said, “That idea will never work,” before she had a chance to finish. This left me feeling disappointed I didn’t get to hear more from her, and I was intimidated about sharing my ideas with the group.”

Such feedback is not judgmental (“You were wrong to interrupt Jessica”), not generalized (“You are always interrupting people”) and doesn’t analyze the reasons the individual behaved as he did (“Do you have no respect for other people’s ideas?”). As a result, it is more likely to be heard and considered rather than defensively rejected.

By all means, we encourage organizations, managers, and employees to recognize and leverage strengths. But you ignore weaknesses at your own peril.

Craig Chappelow is a leadership solutions facilitator, Americas, at the Center for Creative Leadership.

Cindy McCauley is a senior fellow, Americas, at the Center for Creative Leadership.



Silence the Critical Voices in Your Head

There’s one debilitating behavior that most of us fall victim to with great regularity: listening to critical voices in our heads. Whether they originate from external criticism or our own fears and doubts, these negative voices tell us we’re not good enough, kind enough, or productive enough. Research shows that echoing negative thoughts inside our heads increases our chances of depression, isolates us from others, and inhibits us from pursuing goals.

For example, Rajeev, an executive vice president in charge of a billion-dollar business within a high-tech company, fell victim to this kind of thinking. He had been rapidly promoted and had a track record of successful business results. Rajeev had also created teams that worked well together. But the higher up the chain he went, the less feedback he received. Rajeev was hungry for information on what he could do to further improve his effectiveness. He hired me as his coach and asked me to interview 15 coworkers so he could better understand how they perceived him. The results were overwhelmingly positive. People loved Rajeev’s smarts and business savvy, and they applauded his ability to look to the future and take decisive actions.

But Rajeev didn’t see this positive feedback. Instead, he magnified the much smaller negative criticisms in the report: that he could become so focused on a goal that he neglected relationships along the way, and his colleagues could end up feeling dismissed and rushed. Rajeev was devastated.

This feedback wasn’t new to Rajeev — and the feedback was valid. But it wasn’t the actual perceptions that triggered Rajeev to spiral into despair; rather, it was the tone of voice and turn of phrase in some of his coworker’s comments that he latched onto. He heard their voices in his head. Those voices made him hide in his office, slowed his pace of work and output, and caused him to avoid making key business decisions.

Rajeev needed a strategy to get himself back on track. Some studies have suggested that we need five positive voices for every one negative voice we carry around in our heads to feel balanced, happy, and productive. Fortunately, for Rajeev, he didn’t need to seek out five more voices — he already had a written report full of them. He just needed to use them.

We put together a plan and he followed four steps. Here’s how to move past negativity and into productivity:

  • Look for the positive. We often assume that the biggest potential for improvement lies in fixing our weaknesses, but amplifying our strengths is also important. According to Gallup, people who use their strengths daily are six times more engaged, and strengths-focused teams are 12.5% more productive. Instead of only asking about what you did wrong, request positive feedback too. Ask, “What did you like about my presentation?” or “What worked well for you in this pitch deck?”
  • Hear the positive. Take it in. Many of my clients will ask for positive feedback but only start taking notes once the negative feedback starts. Jot down the positive feedback so you know what to replicate. It also cues the feedback giver that positive feedback is just as important to you as areas to improve.
  • Dig in to understand the positive. Allow yourself to lean in and explore praise. Think of a compliment someone paid you recently. What did you do in response? Did you make excuses? “I was lucky.” Did you minimize it? “I had a lot of help.” At best, you probably said, “Thank you.” In contrast, what do you do when someone makes negative comments? You ask questions and even request examples. Turn a compliment into an opportunity to gather concrete examples of how you’re effective. For example: “I’m so glad my workshop was helpful to you. What about it was helpful? What did I do that helped you learn?”
  • Believe the positive, and act as if it were true. Even if you somehow work yourself up to following the three steps above, you might still have a hard time believing what people say about you. Maybe you wonder about the feedback giver’s ulterior motive. Instead, believe what they’re saying might actually be true. This is easier to do if you cultivate what I call “Jalil” voices. Jalil was the first person in my life whose words of encouragement helped me and even saved my life. Find the people who have your best interests at heart and who you can count on to tell you the truth. When you hear their voices over and over again, you’re more likely to see the positive themes and internalize them.

As Rajeev learned to channel the positive voices in his head, he not only became more productive, but also more aware of his own tone with others. When negative voices in his head subsided, he recognized what he could say to be a positive voice for his colleagues. This helped free some of his coworkers from their own dark thoughts and increased their productivity, too — a virtuous cycle.

Make it a daily practice to shoot for a five-to-one ratio. You may not keep a precise count of how many positive and negative voices you’re allowing inside your head each day, but once you start to stockpile positive comments, you’ll notice a difference in your energy level and output. With a full tank, it’s easier to pass on the goodwill and be a positive voice for others.

Sabina Nawaz is a global CEO coach, leadership keynote speaker, and writer working in over 26 countries. She advises C-level executives in Fortune 500 corporations, government agencies, non-profits, and academic organizations. Sabina has spoken at hundreds of seminars, events, and conferences including TEDx and has written for, and, in addition to Follow her on Twitter.


Listening Is an Overlooked Leadership Tool

“What do you think?”

I ask this question a lot. My team knows that when they come to me with a question, this is likely the question I’ll come back with first. Sometimes I even preface it with, “I don’t know.” As leaders in our organizations, it’s up to us to coach colleagues and our employees through finding that answer. More often than not, when I ask this question, my team has a better answer than I do — or one that I hadn’t thought about before.

It can be a powerful technique, especially if there is no single right answer – a situation that will be familiar to anyone doing leading-edge work. But it only works in an organization that values listening.

In a growing, constantly changing company like Twitter, there aren’t a lot of things that remain the same for very long. New teams form, new team members join, and projects shift based on new priorities.

With so few anchors in our work environment, and so many variables we can’t control, it’s important to double down on the things we can control.

Listening is an overlooked tool that creates an environment of safety when done well. Several studies over the decades have estimated that we spend anywhere from a third to half our time listening. And yet we don’t retain very much. Back in 1957, researchers found that listeners only remembered about half of what they’d heard immediately after someone finished talking. There’s no reason to think that ratio has improved since then.

Listening can be a challenging skill to master. In our management development sessions, we find it helpful to highlight three levels of listening:

Internal listening is focused on your own thoughts, worries, and priorities, even as you pretend you’re focusing on the other person. In our sessions, we usually illustrate this type of listening with a simple prop — an iPhone. People laugh, not because it’s funny, but because they recognize that this type of listening is what they often do themselves.

Focused listening is being able to focus on the other person, but you’re still not connecting fully to them. The phone may be down and you may be nodding in agreement, but you may not be picking up on the small nuances the person is sharing.

360 listening. This is where the magic happens. You’re not only listening to what the person is saying, but how they’re saying it — and, even better, what they’re not saying, like when they get energized about certain topics or when they pause and talk around others.

When I close my laptop and it’s just me and the person across the table, there’s a connection. There’s energy. There’s the reminder of what’s possible if we focus on what the other person has to say. I’m reminded of why what we’re building together matters.

Listening creates spaciousness, which we need to do good work. And the converse is also true: I listen more when I create space in my day. When I have back-to-back meetings, my goal is to get through them with just enough time to run to the other building for my next meeting. When I strategically create space on my calendar to reflect on a conversation and prepare for the next one, I can be more present for others.

During an eventful one-on-one with my manager earlier in my career, I was busy giving my update on all the things I was working on. I said, “The only thing I have left to do is…” She stopped me mid-sentence. “What are all of these things helping to solve in the organization?” There it was. Boom. A powerful question. That manager illuminated my focus on getting stuff done, and the problem with not tying it back to any kind of strategic priority in the company. She went on to ask, “How does all of this fit together?” Those two questions fundamentally changed how I approached my work. She’s also the same manager who would have her laptop up during most of our one-on-ones, and nod her head and smile as I shared updates, half-listening. It was only when her laptop was closed and her schedule wasn’t jammed with meetings that I got something out of our meetings. We connected, I learned, and we both felt like we accomplished something out of the conversation.

I recently talked about this with Eileen Fisher and Kit Crawford at the Wisdom 2.0 conference in San Francisco. Eileen is the Founder and Chairwoman of Eileen Fisher, Inc. and Kit is owner and co-chief visionary officer of Clif Bar & Company. When I asked how each of them lead, both of them said through listening.

Eileen said she didn’t know anything about business when she first started her company, so she had to really listen to people, to learn and understand. Kit tries to include people who don’t instinctively speak up in meetings. She’ll ask them for their opinion directly. Both have also dealt with intense legal situations in which they had to listen to the points of view of multiple stakeholders. They asked questions, inquired more deeply into why each person felt a particular course of action was the right one, and ultimately made the final decision. As Kit put it, “The more we listen to ourselves, the more we have a different opportunity to choose. Listen to others and then be brave with your decision.”

So how can we listen more? Three suggestions to try this week:

Look people in the eye. Sherry Turkle, a professor at MIT who studies the psychology of online connectivity, wisely wrote in her recent book Reclaiming Conversation, “We face a significant choice. It is not about giving up our phones but about using them with greater intention. Conversation is there for us to reclaim.” Put down your phone when you’re in meetings. Close your laptop. See if you’re more energized about work and the people with whom you work.

Create space in your day. Manage your calendar and stop booking yourself out the entire day. Can someone on your team be part of that meeting? Does it need to be an hour, or can 30 minutes suffice? Give yourself time for reflection and space throughout the day, so that when you are talking with someone, you can give them your full attention.

Ask more questions. Next time a colleague or employee asks for advice, make sure you’re listening and understand the situation. Then, before answering, ask a question. Clarify what they really need — usually it’s just validation that their thinking is on the right track.

As with everything, there are always exceptions. We can’t always ask questions; if we’re really listening to the other person, we realize that sometimes he or she needs more direction, guidance and even a point of view. And the reality is that most often we can’t simply turn our devices off and leave them in a drawer.

We at Twitter are evangelists of the power of social media platforms to connect people and share information at lightning speed all over the world. However, we’ve got to insist on time for uninterrupted face-to-face conversation. Even in a world of limitless, instantaneous, global connection, the most powerful mode of communication is that of two people listening.

Melissa Daimler currently heads the Global Learning & Organizational Development team @Twitter, integrating interests in learning, coaching, and organizational dynamics into a career. Follow Melissa @mdaimler