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4 Ways to Normalize Feedback

What is the connotation or vibe of feedback in your organization?

Does the word conjure thoughts of colleagues appreciating each other and sharing information intended to enhance performance?

Or, does it create worry? Is it a term only used to describe critiques or opinions intended to change someone else’s behavior?

If it’s the latter, you’re not alone.

I recently posed this question during a workshop I facilitated at the 2022 Nonprofit Technology Conference. I polled the group of nonprofit leaders attending the workshop and asked:

What is the connotation of feedback in your organization?

70% said that it was either “information to correct a problem and often creates worry” or “Our organization avoids using the term entirely and uses words like advice or suggestions.”

It is clear. “Feedback” has a bad rap.

Here’s the problem, when leaders have a lopsided view of the term, many either avoid discussing performance or communicate unclearly by belaboring semantics. They searched for “softer” words to describe performance that often leaves the employee confused. This ultimately compromises performance.

Let’s change this and normalize feedback as something that keeps relationships intact and enhances performance. Here are 4 ways to do just that.

Talk About It Before Ever Having to Give It

A big part of what gives feedback the negative connotation is the lack of discussing it openly. Sometimes it is because of the negative connotation, but many other times it is because the leader doesn’t have simple and memorable language to describe it.

When someone says to you “What is feedback?”, can you answer that question in less than 10 words? If not, try this:

Feedback is information intended to enhance performance.

When leaders use simple language and discuss topics openly, it paves the way to have meaningful discussions.

Ask for and Receive It Well

Leaders carry a responsibility to model the behavior they want to see in others. This means, if they want to be able to give their teams feedback and hold a productive conversation about performance, they must ask for feedback and demonstrate how to receive it.

There are two ways to do this, and both require advanced notice. Providing a heads-up will maximize the likelihood you will receive meaningful feedback.

The first way to ask for feedback is to center it on a specific activity. This approach gives the person you want feedback from some guidance on what to observe. It might sound like:

At the next project meeting, will you observe my facilitation skills? Specifically, if I include everyone in the discussion and if I help the group identify action steps.

The second way is to establish a routine of exchanging feedback. A former boss of mine conducted quarterly feedback sessions that looked like this. He would ask me:

  • What is one thing I do well that benefits the team or our work together?

  • What is one thing I can do to be more effective?

  • What can I stop doing?

Then, I would ask him the same three questions.

This expected and routine approach to feedback takes the negative connation out of it. To dive deeper into the concept of asking for feedback, read How to Ask for Feedback and Receive It Well (even if you disagree).

Establish a Foundation of Positive Feedback

Research has clearly established the benefits of positive feedback and the potential destruction of negative.

Here is what we know well: people feel valued when their work is recognized and when people feel valued, they perform better. It’s quite simple.

Positive feedback builds an environment of value and trust which drives performance.

Conversely, negative feedback has the potential to inhibit learning and trigger defensiveness. “Focusing people on their shortcomings or gaps doesn’t enable learning. It impairs it.” (Harvard Business Review)

This means, and experts recommend, a greater ratio of positive feedback to negative will yield the best results. Consider a 5:1 ratio. This is five positive interactions with gratitude, compliments, acknowledge, or appreciation to one interaction with critique.

This routine positive feedback sets a foundation so that people feel supported when receiving critical feedback. Individuals are less likely to get defensive or dismiss critical feedback when there is a strong sense of respect and trust within the team.

Be Specific and Genuine, Use a Framework

It is not enough to say, “Great work!” or “Nice job!” This leaves the receiver of the feedback unclear of what behavior or actions to replicate. What was great and nice about their work? Moreover, these overly simplified compliments can feel hollow.

Using a framework ensures there is specificity in the feedback and with specificity, the feedback is viewed genuinely. For example, instead of saying “Wow, you’re great at running meetings!” Review Table 1 to see how to give positive feedback that is specific and genuine.

The same framework can be used for critical feedback, with one exception. When giving critical feedback, ask for self-evaluation first. Give the person the opportunity to acknowledge where improvement is necessary. If the individual is already self-aware, then there’s no need to give feedback.

If they don’t realize their missteps, then follow the same framework. Review Table 2 to see how to follow the framework to provide critical feedback.

Feedback doesn’t have to be scary or something to be avoided. Rather, it is merely information intended to enhance performance. By discussing this openly, modeling behavior, being more positive than critical, and using a framework for specificity, the true meaning and value of feedback is normalized.

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Until next time!


Amy Drader is a management consultant and credentialed coach with over 20 years’ experience in HR and operations. She knows first-hand the joys and challenges of leading people and is dedicated to helping managers and teams advance their performance. She is the owner of Growth Partners Consulting, a boutique leadership and team development consulting firm that provides customized training and coaching.

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