My Framework for motivating and productive feedback

Feedback is one of hottest topics in the field of leadership. Feedback is seen as a driver for the development of employees, leaders, and organizations. However, if you look at current practice and studies on this, you can see how unmotivating and productive feedback can be. Although more feedback is desired, the quality of the feedback is often not appreciative, correct, supportive and with a development focus. And we praise too little and we could that better. In addition, in Germany feedback is part of outdated, partly performance assessment concepts (see also my post on agile performance assessments, in German).

I would like to take up this with a concrete framework for feedback and a feedback guide. This article is about the basics (why should we do it differently) and the framework, the guide (how should we do it) with an overall conclusion comes in just over a week in a second post. I am aware that there are other perspectives and opinions on this. I therefore look forward to your feedback on this.

The problem with feedback

Feedback includes several aspects, from spontaneous help, starting with helping for example in a video conference how to share a document, to feedback on what colleagues might perceive as aggressive discussion behavior. In this chart I have formed 4 clusters of feedback, explained with examples, and connected with support options. It is important to me that the further you move up from the lower cluster, the more subjective the assessment is, and the more difficult feedback becomes.

The fact that feedback is a based on a subjective assessment is the first point that is often not seen. Feedback is always subjective. Therefore, it is necessary to raise the awareness that:

  1. The so-called Rater effect must be considered.   
  2. The feedback interferes with the personal sphere and that fears are triggered.

The Rater effect means unconsciously judging a person with oneself, one’s own characteristics and value judgments. Studies on the Rater effect conclude that just over 50 percent of ratings are distorted by the Rater effect. [1]As a result, it is more likely that an own assessment will take place. Researchers find particularly serious distortions in standardized performance assessments with predetermined characteristics and evaluation grids.

The more subjective the observations are (the more you look at the upper clusters in the chart above), the more important the experience of the feedback giver contribute. Experience, however, is only one prerequisite, the second is the ability to take different perspectives, to be reflective.

Acting reflectively is the recognition that the only area in which we are a reliable source of truth is our experiences and feelings.[2] And that is what feedback is all about: sharing experiences, impressions, and feelings.

Neuroscientific results also confirm that feedback triggers stress and[3] anxiety. The fears or fears associated with feedback result from the subconscious assessments of the extent to which feedback poses a threat to one’s own status, security, or autonomy. If this is the case, the brain reacts with a „defensive or escape impulse“, which we subconsciously still activate, our heritage from the Stone Age. You try to avoid feedback, go into a defending mode, argument against or consider it inaccurate. Productive feedback therefore means considering the effect on the subconscious. Neuroscientific studies also show that this is similar for the feedback giver.

My framework for feedback

The framework presented here focuses on the exchange in hierarchical relationships between employees and superiors, but also works for personal feedback in agile teams or other forms of personal (peer) feedback. And the name Framework already shows that prefabricated assessment systems are a bad habit. In addition to the built-in bias, the models used are based on competence models, which often have more to do with the working world of the past and less with future skills.

Good feedback can be learned. However, you need regular practice for this. And because the acceptance of feedback is inextricably linked to trust in the person who gives them feedback, the quality of feedback is a continuous development topic. Trust is slowly building on the experience gained. And once annual conversation situations with a fixed grid do not help. Not at all, if this involves personnel measures (amount bonus, salary check, selection of talents), as it increases the stress of feedback, undermines the quality of the exchange – also the cooperative work.

In my view, in a work environment that is knowledge-based or creative, when it comes to the upper clusters in the chart, you should set up an exchange at least once a quarter. And whenever an interlocutor wants it.

The way out of stress/anxiety is that you reverse the feedback process. Feedback is no longer given but requested. With this change, you have the advantage that the feedback taker controls the process and then knows in advance which topics are involved. An American study [4] has found that in this format, the heartbeat is reduced by 50 percent compared to the traditional feedback process.

In addition, it is supportive if the topics to be discussed in the conversation are exchanged in advance. This allows both to prepare and a phase of perspective change, during which both can ask themselves in advance, how might my counterpart react to this? Together with the control over the feedback conversation, the systematic change of perspective leads to the fact that the conversations trigger significantly less stress and not the above-discussed fears or defensive reactions for both participants.

Results from practice also make us aware that important topics are addressed in this way, because the feedback taker knows better in which points there is a need for improvement and when one needs praise again. Studies on the quality of feedback show that far too often things are mentioned that are already known and on which the feedback taker is working. The feedback taker is not an empty vessel that needs to be filled with suggestions for improvement.

Above, I have already hinted at it. Feedback should be mutual. The need for improvement and the desire for praise are independent of levels or positions, and we live less and less in a top-down world of work. Why not praising your boss frequently? The mutual feedback also supports the willingness to give feedback more sensitively and to live the change of perspective, because one is judged on it as well.

From a coaching perspective, this model of systematic and reciprocal feedback also encourages personal responsibility for the feedback process. By not only entering the conversation passively, adopting a wait-and-see attitude, but actively contributing and helping to shape it, the successes for the actual goals of feedback are also improved: continuous learning and getting better.

But of course, especially for executives, it is a change to want active and credible personal feedback from employees.

My personal experiences with feedback (as a giver or taker, consultant) reflect everything I have written here. When it is used in feedback formats in management teams, these teams tend to be extreme. Either cotton or leather balls, rarely a healthy balance. I suggest that you now reflect on your own experiences with feedback and evaluate them rationally, but also your feelings related with these situations. This is also a good basis to read the post about the feedback guide in just over a week.


[1] This article describes known assessment errors in Performance Reviews https://engagedly.com/what-is-rater-bias-and-how-does-it-affects-performance-reviews/

[2]The Harvard Business Review https://hbr.org/2019/03/the-feedback-fallacy

[3] https://www.strategy-business.com/article/Using-Neuroscience-to-Make-Feedback-Work-and-Feel-Better

[4] https://theworkingreport.com/neuroscience-and-leadership/

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