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Why Most Feedback is Counterproductive

How to do it better


Peter was a good friend of mine, and Sara was his girlfriend.
Well, not any longer. She was now his ex-girlfriend.

They’d split up. Peter asked for my feedback: “So, what did you think of Sara, anyway?” Well, my thoughts were not very complimentary.

Ever feel like you put your foot in your mouth?

That’s exactly what happened. Not much later they got back together, got married, and guess who wasn’t invited to the wedding.


Here’s the challenge, when people ask for feedback, you’re never really sure what they want. Do they want you to tell them the truth? Or would they prefer to hear some sugar-coated platitudes? Look at it this way, the truth, is that most of us just don’t want to hear when we are headed in the wrong direction.

In the face of what is called “constructive feedback” the moment someone starts to give us their commentary, there’s a tipping point –  a point where we just want the other person to shut up.

Neuroscience research has revealed that when we hear feedback that runs counter to our beliefs we subconsciously reject it. In fact, the part of the brain that processes that information shuts down, until it hears information that it likes.

Now they have lost the chance to have their mistakes analyzed. That would be just fine if they didn’t plan to build their skills or their career. When you think about it, developing skill is fundamentally the reduction of mistakes. Without external feedback, progress is going to be painfully slow.

An outsider can often spot more flaws than you can. Why? Someone once told me, it is hard to read the label from inside the bottle.

If you want to make dramatic improvements quickly, you need to make hundreds, even thousands of mistakes. And throughout that process, you need constant feedback to right those wrongs.

One Harvard study showed that when people receive advice they don’t like, they often drop the relationship and seek friends who agree with them. You’ve probably heard the saying: “People don’t leave companies, they leave managers.” Well when leaders dump opinions on others, they tend to alienate those people.

So what is a leader supposed to do to help people improve, if employees shut them off?

Stop giving unsolicited feedback. Start creating a culture of asking for it.

Neuroscience has also shown that when you ask for specific advice, it is easier for you to accept it and it is easier for the giver to give.

There are two rules about asking for feedback.

1. Be specific about what you want.

Let’s say you are preparing a presentation to be given to your division’s leadership team. You run the PowerPoint draft by your boss and ask such questions as:

Do the slides progress in a logical manner?

Am I getting the right message across in the presentation?

What could I do to make it more interesting?

Now, what you are asking for is specific and useful in developing not only your presentation, but in developing your presentation skills.

2) When you receive feedback, do not argue.

Don’t say “yes, but.” Simply say “thank you.”

3) Get feedback from multiple people. Your boss, peers, and team members.

4) If you are asked for feedback, don’t try to solve every problem. Ask questions such as:

What do you think is missing?

What do you think could be done better?

Then, offer specific ideas for improvement and ask what they think they should do to improve.


Unsolicited feedback is rejected when it doesn’t fit with the person’s view of themselves.

It is easier for someone to accept the feedback if they ask for specific feedback.

It is easier for the giver to give helpful feedback when asked for specific feedback.

Stop giving unsolicited feedback and start asking for specific feedback and teaching your team members to ask for feedback. It is better for everyone.

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Stephen Moulton

Stephen Moulton is the Chief Insight Officer of Action Insight and Hire-STARS, he is also the author of the CEO’s Advantage, 7 Keys for Hiring Extraordinary Leaders and the forthoming book Engage - Leadership and Building an Engaged Team.  He can be reached at 303-439-2001 or stephen@actioninsight.com.

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