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Restructuring Feedback

Updated: Apr 21

At work, feedback is necessary. It shows up in performance coaching sessions, when a person is not sure how to do something or when a person is not inclined to do their own research. The intention behind offering feedback is to influence change or modify behaviour. However, when it is offered in the form of criticism, even when it is skillfully presented using a non-judgmental tone, people on the receiving end can still feel attacked or embarrassed. This can lead to reactions such as withdrawal, defensiveness or even anger. When criticism is extreme, it can be perceived as condescending or even bullying. When this happens, organizations can lose good people, or impair productivity.

Studies have shown that disapproving feedback can cause people to turn inward, to become preoccupied with the feedback, and the emotion they associate with this information can reduce productivity by making it difficult to focus on anything else.

Neuroscience has shown that there are two parts of our brain that influence how we process criticism: the amygdala and the neocortex. Each of us has two amygdalae, which are located near the emotional brain. Our amygdalae help us to perceive threats and respond with fight-or-flight strategies. The important thing to recognize is that criticism can be perceived as a threat, and when this happens, the person perceiving the threat can shift into survival mode making communication or collaboration difficult.

The neocortex supports us with managing our responses to criticism by helping us to understand why we are experiencing the emotions that are showing up. By effectively navigating these emotions, we can turn excuses and blame into resourcefulness and accountability.

So why is it important to understand the impact of criticism? It’s because some of us have been conditioned to give constructive criticism. When criticism is offered according to one formula, it is sandwiched between two positive statements. This doesn't always work because it can feel mechanical, judgmental, or insincere to the people on the receiving end.  When it comes to criticism, no matter how it is delivered, it can be counterproductive.

In some workplaces, criticism is an accepted norm. It shows up during meetings, sessions that should be dedicated to coaching, or when errors are made. Whatever the case, when criticism is offered, the intent can be to correct a situation, develop an employee, or embarrass them. When there is no intention to develop or support others, criticism can be devoid of empathy.  When this is the case, it can show up as impatience, disgust, or judgment.

In other workplaces, there is no feedback at all because people leaders have lapsed into avoidance mode. When this happens, members of a team are free to think that their work is at an acceptable level, or even above average. This can create complexity within an organization because internal challenges remain unaddressed and they have the potential to emerge as conflict over time.

People process criticism in different ways. Some internalize the feedback and blame themselves. Others become angry or anxious and deflect responsibility by making excuses or blaming others. Another group may attempt to understand why the feedback was offered so they can grow. It is not often that I encounter people in workplaces who are in the fourth category but when I do, there are some who may still experience an initial amygdala response that needs to be navigated. Then there are those who do not associate their value with their mistakes so they don't perceive criticism of their work as a personal attack. 

How to Create Lasting Connections Through Feedback

Depending on how you deliver feedback, you can strengthen relationships or create distance between you and the people around you.  Here are three ways you can build and sustain healthy relationships by providing developmental feedback.

Positive Reinforcement

One effective strategy is positive reinforcement.  This happens when you highlight a person’s strengths by recognizing or rewarding their achievements. Rewards can range from bonuses to developmental opportunities.  The goals of positive reinforcement are to shape and reinforce desired behaviours and for some, to improve their self-image.  Positive reinforcement can create the opposite effect of criticism if the person offering it is not trusted.

Positive reinforcement works best when it is offered immediately after an employee has done something that should be addressed.  It can be offered in private or it can be publicly highlighted so desired behaviours can be at the top-of-mind for the entire team.  Positive reinforcement has the potential to increase the confidence of employees, helping them to engage more. Empirical evidence shows that actively engaged employees are more productive so shifting from a culture that seeks to transform behaviour through constructive criticism to one where positive reinforcement is a prevalent skill can have profound effects on morale, engagement, and profitability.

Performance Coaching

Coaching is another way you can make the shift to higher engagement levels and lasting connections. When leaders use an ineffective coaching model they tell employees what they should do and they do not ask powerful questions. These leaders are unable to gain employee buy in and commitment.

Another challenge with performance coaching is that managers rarely have  time to support members of their teams with completing their work. Instead, they issue abstract instructions. This leads to ineffectiveness, frustration, and inefficiency. Another sub-optimal practice emerges when a manager explains how to do something based on his or her approach or worldview, without taking into account the differences in the employee's thinking and execution styles.

Solution focused coaching is based on the understanding that employees already have the resources they need to solve a problem creatively.  As a leader, your role in solution focused coaching is to adopt a tone of curiosity, and use questions to tap into their inner resources.

Solution focused coaching keeps the momentum going because the process helps employees buy into what they are being asked to do. The person being coached defines why it is important. The leader/coach help team members shift into a creative mode by honing their questioning strengths.  I once heard a speaker say a question always has an answer built into it, so the more thought provoking and curious the question, the more thoughtful the answer will be if there is a relationship built on trust and mutual respect.

Appreciative Inquiry

Appreciative Inquiry is similar to positive reinforcement. It is a strategy that focuses on the strengths of your team members, using integrated skills of questioning and appreciation to highlight and rely on the strengths of your team members instead of their weaknesses.


Criticism can cause stress for the person on the receiving end. So think about the feedback you would like to offer by considering how you can frame it in a way that the person on the receiving end is more likely to accept and understand it as developmental and sincere. Supportive, truthful language is essential for sustaining quality relationships that are conducive to high performance.

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With knowledge gained from almost 40 years of Fortune 500 and international consulting experience, Yvette shares her rich experience and proprietary model for changing businesses from the inside out. She is a thought leader in the areas of trust, leadership and organizational ecosystems, a multiple award-winning author and cultural consultant.

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