Feedback – let’s change our relationship with this dirty word!

Written by Matt Bolton-Alarcon on 28 January 2015

As everyone begins a new year there are inevitably oodles of good intent flying around and resolutions aplenty such as: ‘get fit’, ‘work smarter’, ‘read more’. Some will stick, some will die away before this article goes to print.

But I bet out of the millions of professional and personal resolutions made across the working world, not many will be ‘get more feedback’. Why is this? Unfortunately the very word ‘feedback’ has a bad reputation. It’s considered a dirty word in business. When I mention the word at conferences speaking about creative leadership, it sometimes feels as though someone at the back of the room has just turned the air-conditioning unit up and the temperature has plummeted to sub-zero levels. You can see the hair on the back of people’s necks stand up. 

Feedback has this bad rep because of the way it is handled in business. My clients tell me horror stories about only getting feedback once a year at appraisal time, often from bosses who have rarely seen them in action. A year is a long time to wait to hear how you’re doing. It’s also a long time for paranoia and self-doubt to creep in unnecessarily. I remember when I worked for a media business, submitting and receiving feedback through the anonymous 360 appraisal system. I actually loved getting people’s points of view and craved knowing what I could do better. I thought everyone else was the same until I got hauled into the sales director’s office and ripped to shreds for giving her one bit of constructive feedback amongst lots in a glowing report. Whether it’s the ‘shit sandwich’ or just none at all, most people in business have been bitten by badly-delivered feedback and this is why feedback, in general, has earned itself a bad reputation.

However, when you ask most people whether feedback is useful and important, they will enthuse about its potential merits. It’s human nature to need to know how you’re doing. I was reading Gretchen Rubin’s book ‘’The Happiness Project” over the holidays and she talk about happiness being linked to the feeling of constantly growing.

I also heard a speech from Scott Forstel, who headed up the first iPhone project at Apple. He talked about always recruiting people with a ‘growth mindset’ versus a ‘fixed mindset’.

So, if I could wave my magic wand at the start of year I would try and change everybody’s relationship with the word ‘feedback’. It’s vital, it’s enriching, but it has to be handled with care.

Here are some tips to make sure you keep growing this year.

1.    Demand feedback - don’t wait for it

If you wait for annual appraisals to get feedback then it’s your fault. If you start demanding feedback, it shows you really want it and makes the whole process less of an ordeal. It also gives you control of your own development.

2.    Regular and balanced

I would aim to demand feedback at least a couple of times a week. When you have a meaningful interaction (a project kick off, a big presentation), grab somebody for two minutes and ask them “What did I do well?” and “What could I do even better?” Notice the two questions: We often forget to ask what we do well and therefore have blind spots in how we brilliant we actually are.

3.    Keep it human

I have been trained in seven-step approaches to giving or receiving feedback. It may be thorough but it can feel robotic and too process-like.

Do it with a smile on your face and then people will feel comfortable giving you their perspective without dancing round the issue.

 4.    Hunt the facts

Always get specifics rather than generalisations. If somebody says ‘you were really engaging’, ask what specifically you did that led them to believe you were engaging.

5.    Let it soak in

A lot of people react to feedback but there’s no need. You may get some feedback you don’t agree with and that’s fine. Feedback is just somebody else’s interpretation. So use it if you wish and don’t if you don’t. If you get feedback often you will be able to quickly process what is useful or not and that’s the best way to adapt and grow.


Matt Bolton-Alarcón is a partner at Upping Your Elvis. He can be contacted at


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