Feedback is Like Most Other Gifts; We Appreciate it More When it is Something We Want


Warning, a lot to unpack here. If you have a request to unpack specific concepts below, please email me at so I can work them into my blog rotation.

As I wrap up my holiday blog season on the gift of feedback, I want to draw attention to a significant factor related to our ability to accept feedback. However, before doing that, remember when you received a “gift” you did not like or even want. Regardless of the event, I think we have all been disappointed at some point in our life by receiving a gift that wasn’t truly aligned with our expectations (you might have wanted a golf club but instead received a pair of slippers; wanted jewelry but received a kitchen appliance; received a yellow gold diamond ring, but wanted white gold (yes, I’ve learned the hard way).

Feedback is like this. There is no shortage of trainers, consultants, instructors, etc., that emphasize the importance of feedback (I’m included in this group); however, far too many do a disservice by only focusing on one aspect of the equation. Like many leadership books that tell you what to do, they often fail to represent the context and various other factors accurately. Many people (authors, consultants, etc.) overlook the timing and readiness to accept the feedback. Just as my prior blog posts (1, 2) were intended to help people find the courage to provide feedback, I did them a slight disservice as I only presented one side of the feedback coin. Now, I hope I address the other side.

So, what is occurring on the recipient’s end during the feedback (or gift-receiving) event? A lot! However, one of the things I want to draw attention to is the significance of agency and autonomy during such experiences. If you follow the motivation research based on the self-determination theory framework, you understand that autonomy is one of three basic psychological needs (if you are familiar with Dan Pink’s book Drive, this is where he draws much of his motivation framework). However, what is also true is that feedback is often an externalized event (not originating within the person receiving the feedback), and externalized events (including incentives) have frequently been found to lead to diminished levels of autonomy and, consequentially, higher occurrences of demotivation. So, merely providing feedback (or giving a gift), while love-based and from the heart, can have negative consequences.

True to our Black River motivation model is the importance of “alignment” in the coaching, managing, and feedback process. Alignment honors what we know about the brain and the importance of a person practicing agency – having the ability to choose and make decisions for themselves. The evolving research on the brain demonstrates the importance of a person being ready (perhaps, retrospectively, one of the biggest mistakes in Hersey & Blanchard’s early Situational Leadership model, moving away from “readiness” to “development levels”) and open to the feedback conversation for the feedback event to have positive outcomes. Merely providing a person feedback is only part of the equation. If you want the feedback to have true impact and value (this occurs on the receiver’s end), the person must be of the willingness and mindset to receive the feedback. As with anything, many things factor into timing, positioning, well-being, etc. However, rarely have I seen a person find feedback aligned if they were not open to the event and the information. And being open to the event is significantly tied to organizational culture and climate.

Some recommendations to nurture healthy feedback within organizations:

  • Nurture a culture that values feedback. Culture occurs by design or default, so why not take proactive steps to improve the cultural landscape where leaders and all value feedback? These steps must occur at the team, individual, and organizational levels.
  • Small, regular drips and doses. Avoid monumental conflict events by providing routine (formal and informal) feedback sessions. This can occur in all sorts of environments. For the leader, it is vital to integrate feedback into the employee coaching process.
  • Find neutral ground as possible. I am not saying go to a coffee shop to deliver damaging feedback; however, a coffee shop can be an excellent location for a developmental conversation. What I am saying is be mindful that if you unevenly tilt towards providing critical feedback (I’ve been guilty of this), 1st – be careful with too much, and 2nd – be mindful of what your office may become in terms of how your employees feel when entering or even passing it.
  • Commitment to annual 360-degree feedback. We regularly hear conflicting stories from leaders. In the same breath, they share that a) they are having organizational issues, despite b) their leaders doing everything they should. One of the best ways to test this is through a 360-degree survey. A lot can be drawn from what is and is omitted (watch for a future blog on Silent Teams) in the responses.
  • Seek help from outsiders/experts. At the risk of this sounding like a sales pitch, most leaders are content/industry experts first and leaders second. However, this is not a journey they must go on alone. From a professor and consultant’s point of view, I would never tell a mechanic how to fix a car or a k-8 teacher how to teach children, but I can speak to how to lead a team and develop a solid and vibrant culture. This way, you get to focus on what you’re good at, and the subject matter expert gets to focus on what they are good at.