Feedback That Inspires

A key step to creating high-performance teams.

I have often quoted George Bernard Shaw when working with teams to improve collaboration and overall performance ‘The single biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place’. And in my experience, there are two specific areas of communication in the workplace need the most attention. Setting expectations and giving feedback.

How many times have you found yourself completing a self-evaluation or evaluation of others and you are doing so with only a vague notion of what was expected in the first place? Maybe you are lucky enough to have had some notion of outcomes expected to achieve but very unlikely there was a bi-directional conversation where both parties thoroughly agreed. In my almost 30 years in the corporate world, I have seen many variations to how this could be done and none have been as simple or elegant as the work by Dr. Brene Brown in Dare To Lead with the “Paint Done For Me” approach. I highly recommend you spend time with this model and integrate it into your team’s culture. When it feels normal to hear someone say ‘paint done for me’ which then leads to a deeper conversation where both parties gain more clarity then you have achieved success in this key area of communication. How you document it after that is somewhat irrelevant and not even always needed. But you better paint done.

Feedback on the other hand is one where I have yet to find one simple model or key insight to replace all others. There are many thought leaders in this space and I will shout out some of my favourites throughout this blog. Overall my POV is that there are three fundamental areas that are critical to understand and address to conquer this second big workplace communication miss. 

One – A culture that is built on psychological safety and a growth mindset

Psychological Safety as a term has been around for more than half a century. The simple definition is the belief that the workplace is safe from interpersonal risk (Edmondson A., 1999). When psychological safety exists in a workplace then we see an increase in behaviours such as learning, collaboration, creativity, adapting and overall personal growth. I like to simplify this even further to the point of when it exists in the workplace I believe I can make mistakes, and say things that might be wrong or bold in front of others without fear that there will be negative consequences to my self-image. There is no intense fear or concern for retribution. 

This may seem simple at first but in today’s world, it has become complicated as many feel they are unsure not just of the right answer or how to navigate out of a crisis situation but how to make sure they do not say something that might be offensive or received in a way not intended. When we have psychological safety the person who is offended feels that they can share they were offended AND the person who is about to say something they are unsure of, or possibly not even aware of, can ask for permission to make mistakes as they are trying to be more inclusive but may get it wrong. We cannot learn and grow together if we are not allowed to make mistakes. There is an assumption of unintentional harm in all of these situations. If someone is being an intentional bully or intentionally trying to sabotage work this is different and should not be tolerated, for both the sake of psychological safety and many other reasons. 

Often trust and psychological safety are treated somewhat synonymously and while trust is important, this distinction between them made by Amy Edmundson is key…

“trust captures one’s willingness to be vulnerable to others, thus demarcating one’s willingness to give the other person the benefit of the doubt. Psychological safety, on the other hand, captures the extent to which one believes that others will give them the benefit of the doubt when taking risks”. (Edmondson, 2004)

Most would agree that both are needed but when we have psychological safety it means that at the individual level, we are more willing to share our ideas and opinions, or in this case feedback. Edmundson’s book The Fearless Organization is well worth the read as she provides countless nuggets of practical examples to create psychological safety in the workplace along with substantial benefits for your investment. You can also get a good sense of her work in her TEDx Talk on building a psychologically safe workplace. 

I have also found the work by Douglas Stone and Shelia Heen in their book  Thanks for the Feedback, to be useful to both the receiver and the giver of feedback. While it may feel like you need a psychology degree to navigate in many workplaces today they have outlined three common psychological triggers to avoid when giving or receiving feedback. First, it feels important to note that I am a strong supporter that the individual taking responsibility for their feelings and not immediately putting the blame on others for causing or triggering the feeling. This allows us to take control back and feel more empowered. However, that does not mean we all get a pass for the impact we have on others. Clearly we do and that can be both positive and negative. If I can avoid causing someone negative emotions, particularly when I am giving them feedback then I would like to. The Truth Trigger, Relationship Trigger and Identity Trigger are likely to show up in every feedback conversation. Knowing about them in advance can help both parties prepare their mindset and how they will engage in the conversation differently to make sure the feedback is received as intended and acted on appropriately.  Knowing these triggers helps support the creation and maintenance of psychological safety.

Growth Mindset is a fairly common phrase in today’s workplace thanks to the work of Carol Dweck. In her 2006 book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Dweck proposes that we have implicit views about our abilities. These views were called “fixed” or “growth” mindsets. The short version of the story is those with growth mindsets tend to fair better in life in many dimensions. A very simplified way of thinking of a growth mindset is simply the use of the word “yet”. Suggesting that one does not know how to do something yet implies that it is possible to build that skill, to improve through hard work, self-learning, training or mentoring. Overall it is suggesting humans are not fixed in their abilities from birth but we have a capacity to continuously improve. There is endless material on this concept and I recommend starting with this short video from Carol Dweck herself.

But why is a growth mindset important to a strong feedback culture? When you embrace this mindset as part of your culture then it helps in two key ways. One, it sets the tone that no one is expected to be perfect (or for that matter is perfect) because we are all continuously learning. Two, it establishes the expectation that in this culture we are embracing continuous improvement through hard work, self-learning, training, mentoring, etc. People need permission to make mistakes as part of creating psychological safety. They need to feel it is OK to say I don’t know and at the same time feel the challenge to want to go figure it out. When this is there then feedback becomes something that individuals will crave because it is a key part of the continuous improvement process. Feedback becomes a little hit of dopamine on the journey of self-development. A moment of insight or validation that they are making progress. 

The benefits of having psychological safety and a growth mindset integral to your workplace culture go far beyond simply feedback. The investment in either is well worth their return but does require intentional actions and constant care and feeding. Each is a very common measurement of employee engagement and culture surveys. If your organization does not already have a strategy for implementing and measuring one or both then it is probably where you want to start the conversation.

Two – Understanding the types of feedback and when to leverage

Positive Feedback – Kim Cameron’s book, Positive Leadership, speaks to many important behaviours that are key to what he describes as a high-performance culture. One of which is how we give feedback and more importantly the type of feedback we should lean on the most. No surprise that we should lean more on giving positive feedback, the most common examples being providing praise or appreciation. Some of this thinking originates with the work from Frederickson’s (2001) broaden-and-build theory, which put simply is the idea that when you engage with others in such a way that positive emotions are evoked that it broadens the person’s potential for thought-action versus when you evoke negative emotions you tend to create more narrow thought-action (e.g., fear-based or how do I get out of this situation unharmed). When it is negative feedback you might get immediate results but not sustained ones. Nor will you get better or more creativity or innovation applied. Nothing is absolute, meaning there can be negative experiences that also have positive emotions associated with them. But as a general rule, the idea is that we should look for more opportunities to positively reinforce behaviour as it will lead to high performance in teams and individuals. 

There have been various studies which have attempted to determine the ratio that is ideal for positive to negative when it comes to communication in general and that has ranged from a tipping point of 11:1 where positive communication starts to be ineffective to a minimum range of 3:1 (Youssef-Morgan & Luthans, 2013). The point of positive feedback is to spotlight a behaviour or outcome you want more of. The old saying of you gets better results with honey than vinegar stands true over time. The challenge is being present enough to observe behaviours, small and large, that you want to praise. Many leaders I coach would say they do not interact with their direct reports often enough to be able to get anywhere close to the ratios suggested. 

Also, consider that the ratio is one side of the coin while the other side is the frequency or dosage. We need feedback daily to really excel according to Stone and Heen. The good news is that feedback does not need to solely come from the manager. It most certainly can come from peers and from the person themself. Ideally, we are self-aware enough to notice when we are doing well and feel good about that. Feedback is just data to tell us how we are doing. If I’m learning to drive a car and I run over the curb that is data. I don’t need someone to tell me that I’m not doing great at that moment. I should equally be able to go through a city and feel good about my capabilities without having someone there to praise me. It all matters. Making feedback feel normal and expected across your organization is key to overall success. You might enjoy this in depth interview with Kim Cameron on his thoughts on positive leadership and the impact it has on organizations. 

Constructive Feedback is often the nicer way to say negative feedback but it doesn’t have to be a negative communication experience. In the original research from the broaden-and-build theory that the negative feedback event is pointing to the need for the individual to change while a positive feedback event is suggesting no change is needed, keep doing more of this. One could argue that the negative feedback event, or giving constructive feedback, doesn’t actually have to be negative. It might be more neutral and could be a lot more effective if leveraging tools like coaching where the individual comes to insight that change is needed. But most of us do not feel super excited when we are told we need to change in some way. Still change is often needed. And the ratio was not 3:0 but 3:1. When we never point out where there is change needed, then we have an avoidance culture or one where it might look like constant cheerleading despite the fact that our team is seriously losing. 

The key to constructive feedback is when you give this feedback. What I too often see happen is that an employee, let’s call him Paul, is working on an assignment for weeks or months before anyone properly checks in on how he is doing. By the time they do, it is realized that Paul has been going in completely the wrong direction for what was expected and now a major course correction is required. This becomes a difficult conversation and quite a likely one that Paul experiences as very negative with a lot of frustration that no one told him sooner, he might worry about the impact this will have on his overall evaluation and so on. If Paul had been given feedback earlier, within days of starting and then regularly each week, then the course corrections would be minor. 

The application of coaching skills in the delivery of this feedback might look like this – let’s say  Paul was a developer and his assignment was to build a new feature for customers to log enhancement requests. If Paul started the process focused on asking the customer to provide a business case for why this enhancement was needed and we saw the mock-up of that design we could ask questions like “What do you think the customer is going to feel if they are asked this question first?”. Our goal in the question is to get Paul to be more empathetic to the end user in his design. If we can engage his critical thinking about his own work then he is far more likely to be engaged in the course correction and less defensive as well. 

Evaluation – this is usually the type of feedback that gets everyone so uncomfortable. Evaluation implies comparison. Whether to others or simply to a set of criteria/expectations that was established and ideally previously agreed to. I have met hundreds of very confident individuals that still from time to time get into the negative comparison game even without having another person present. Our ego can get the best of us. This is usually magnified when you add an ‘evaluator’ to the mix. Whether that evaluator is your manager, leader, peer – or even sub-ordinate – the defences tend to go on guard when we perceive feedback as an evaluation. Fortunately, evaluation is not something we actually need to have at a high dosage to perform at our best according to Stone and Heen. We do need it but most likely we can get by with it a few times a year. It greatly depends on the type of work you do and the cycle it might have. If you are a consultant working on many short-term projects throughout the year it is a good thing to make sure a formal evaluation happens at the close of each project as most likely this serves as some sort of record of your progress and will help you do better on the next project. Every organization may use evaluation for different purposes such as for annual performance assessments, promotions, probations, performance improvement plans, etc. It is important to have to establish a standard that is tied to key processes that are high stakes for the employee such as salary increases and/or promotions. What is important in whatever is designed is to remember the evaluation process is a key part of a system that needs to be inclusive and promote equity. Consider how your evaluation process is not only thinking about the key cultural aspects mentioned before but also equitable to all employees.

Three – Development of a common language within your team to ensure the feedback is impactful

Most leaders and managers, with much fewer peers, struggle with finding the right words to say. They worry that they will say the wrong thing or it will be misinterpreted. Let’s face it – most of us were not taught these skills and many of us did not have great role models. I often find in coaching leaders who are confused as to why a person on their team is not improving when they feel like they have given them feedback several times. And when we dive into what they said or didn’t say, we quickly uncover key elements of the feedback conversation that were missed. This is by far the most common place that fault occurs even for the most experienced, caring, people-oriented manager. While I can’t give you a book of phrases to cover every situation that might occur there are a few important language principles that your feedback communication should include. If you can find your words to wrap around these elements then you will be in good shape.

Motivations – knowing what motivates a person is key to insuring they care about the feedback and will take action. In the Relationship Intelligence model (RQ) we look at three core motivations – People, Performance and Process. For every behaviour I am giving feedback on, whether it is praise or coaching, the feedback will be more meaningful when I can connect it with a reason for why this is important. Let’s take for example that I want to coach Eric, who is process motivated, on how we would like to see more adaptability in how he approaches his work. In doing so I need to point to why this is beneficial to improving process or order or quality. If I can’t make that connection, and Eric is strongly oriented to process over performance, then I’m likely to get mixed results on any change in behaviour. I might point to the importance of recognizing new information that is key to the process being successful. Or the importance of remaining open-minded for the opportunity of continuous improvements in process effectiveness. Ultimately Eric needs to make the connection for himself, but as his leader or peer giving feedback if I want to increase the effectiveness, then a little leading the witness can make a big difference. Remember the person might already be feeling slightly too significantly defensive if you have not yet established a culture of psychological safety. Their cognitive functioning might not be firing at 100% at this moment if they do feel threatened which means they may not be able to make the connection as easy as one might assume.

Strengths – there are many strength models out there, some of which focus heavily on your top strengths as a focus area for feedback and career conversations for the sake of increased ‘wellbeing’ or joy. The reality of work means that we do not usually get to just use those top strengths and we often overdo them which leads to burnout or conflict with others. Even for those of us who are our own bosses, you will need to leverage multiple strengths. In the Relationship Intelligence model , we think of strengths as behaviours or capabilities. There are a mix of things that we do really well and feel quite comfortable with and then there are some that we might actually also do very well but we do them rarely as we are less comfortable with them. For me, reserved is one of those strengths. I can do it quite well when needed. But it’s not in my top or even middle strengths. Early in my career, I was probably not as good at being reserved and developed this capability along the way through really good coaching and mentoring. When we are giving feedback speaking to our strengths, regardless of whether we want more or less of that behaviour, helps the individual solidify their portrait of strengths along their career. I like to think of it as a portrait puzzle where some pieces are quite faint at the start of our careers but we slowly get them coloured in darker, indicating we can easily pull that strength out on any occasion when motivated.

Even if your team is unable to leverage the Relationship Intelligence model using the Strengths Development Inventory 2.0 Digital Platform, you can still be curious about individuals’ motivations to create the reason for them and leverage any basic list of behaviour strengths desired in your organization. If your team would like to unleash their full potential with RQ and SDI 2.0 simply reach out for further conversations.

When giving feedback there are 3 key ingredients that should be included in your communication. Just like all great pizzas need to have sauce, cheese and a crust, all great feedback needs to answer the Where, What and Why. Answering “Where” tells us the situation or the context that the behaviour (i.e., strength) was observed. Answering “What” is describing the behaviour or behaviours in the said situation. Finally, answering “Why” tells us why this matters by articulating the impact or outcome observed. Whether the feedback is formal or informal it is worth the effort to answer each of these key elements in the conversation. 

Let’s take the behaviour of quick-to-act and let’s say we have an employee named Victoria. Victoria was in a meeting with her colleagues and the objective was to brainstorm ideas for how to solve an issue. I might want to praise that Victoria was quick-to-act in that situation if I saw that this led to others contributing ideas. Her courage to start sharing without fear of rejection paved the way for others. That was the impact or why her applying this behaviour was important. However, if in the same situation, Victoria was not only quick to act but also lacked being reserved enough to allow others to jump in then the impact could have been negative. She did all the talking. 

It’s very important that we clearly describe that observed impact. The situation is important to help provide overall context. It is very likely the behaviour/impact you are providing feedback on is seen in multiple situations and not just the one. Particularly if the person is very strong in this area. Regardless, having that context helps paint the full picture for the person. It might be important to help the bridge how that behaviour/impact could be achieved in other situations as well so that they get the behaviour is not restricted to just this one situation. This might be particularly helpful for those early in their career.

Anytime we give feedback we are ultimately pointing to a behaviour that we want either more or less of. And we want more or less of that because we believe it will generate an impact or outcome that we also want more or less of. This is ultimately the why reason we are giving feedback. When we can take all of these points into account – psychological safety, growth mindset, understanding the types of feedback and language of feedback, then we can have feedback that inspires our team to act. Either providing more of what we want or less of what we don’t want. Go inspire!


Edmondson AC. (2004). Psychological safety, trust, and learning in organizations: A group level lens). 

(Edmondson A. (1999). Psychological safety and learning behavior in work teams.Admin-istrative Science Quarterly,44, 350–383.

Fredrickson B.L, 2001, The Role of Positive Emotions in Positive Psychology: The Broaden-And-Build Theory of Positive Emotions,  American  Psychological  Association,  Inc.  00O3-066X/01/S5.0OVol. 56. No.  3, 218-226        DOI:  10.1O37//0OO3-O66X.56.3.218

Youssef-Morgan & Luthans, 2013,  Positive leadership: Meaning and application across cultures by Carolyn M. Youssef-Morgan, Fred Luthans Organizational Dynamics (2013) 42, 198—208 )

Relationship Intelligence and the SDI 2.0 Digital Platform

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