Effective Feedback: What, Why and How?

Adam Ambrozy

Giving and receiving feedback is how we can understand how others see us and let others know how we see them. There are many reasons why feedback should be a substantial part of both your personal and professional life. Even if you feel like feedback hasn’t played a big role in your development, think about the last time you had an argument with your partner about something they or you did wrong.

That’s feedback. Some organizations have regular development talks scheduled when managers evaluate employee performance. This also is feedback. Feedback is everywhere around you. The better you understand it and the more tools and tactics you have to deliver it, the greater your opportunity to utilize it for growth.

Feedback for Awareness

One of the biggest opportunities Feedback gives you is to gain awareness of yourself.

The Johari Window, developed by psychologists Joseph Lunt and Harry Ingham, is a great tool to increase awareness through feedback. Its purpose is to deliver a 360 degree view of the self.

The Johari Window has 4 equal quadrants called the Public Area, Blind Area, Hidden Area and Unknown Area.

The Blind Area is the area that is most affected by feedback. This area contains things we don’t know about ourselves yet that others can observe. Receiving feedback helps us expand our knowledge of ourselves and hence become more aware of our behaviours. This means we expand our Public Area - what both we and others know about us - as we reach a higher level of self-awareness.

The Hidden Area contains what we try to hide from others. Feedback helps us build trust and therefore decrease our Hidden Area. The more we trust, the more we are willing to share with other team members.

Awareness is one of the essential ingredients of developing belief - in ourselves and others. Awareness is the key-indicator of success in a range of performance environments. Being aware will give you an insight into your beliefs and whether they are positive or holding you back. If you are aware then this will give you knowledge and if you have knowledge then you know what you need to do to improve and be successful. It will make you seek out more information on the beliefs that are holding you back and how to change them. It will give you the information for next action thinking, whereby you are aware of the very next thing you need to do to move forward.

Feedback for Flow

Flow, also known as being in the zone, is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. (1)

You’ve probably experienced flow before. Maybe you were writing an article or working in Excel. But did you know that flow can be affected by feedback? In order to achieve a state of flow, people must feel connected to their work’s objective. Feedback, without clear goals, is not likely to generate the flow state by itself, however, feedback that helps us clarify our objective or the process of getting there, can have a great impact on our focus.

Csikszentmihályi (2004) argues, the first reason that flow does not occur is that the goals of one's job are not clear. While some tasks at work may fit into a larger, organisational plan, the individual worker may not see where their individual task fits in or makes an impact. Only after the goals are established and understood, feedback enhances our performance. If feedback is given during a task, discussions remain channeled and improvements can be made.

Limited feedback about our work can reduce motivation and leave us unaware of whether or not we did a good job. This can prevent an opportunity for flow. Receiving feedback from colleagues and superiors at work is vital for our engagement and ultimately, our performance. Feedback can also help us improve quicker. Especially when goals and roles are clear, feedback can deliver a final boost to achieving results faster.

Feedback for Growth

It comes at no surprise, that feedback is necessary to regulate the system of every organisation. It’s an important activity in teams that want to develop fast, ensure coherence, as well as high motivation and trust. It’s an important foundation to build a high-performance team, but just as much to engage the individual employee.

High-performing, coherent teams will be of more importance in the coming years, due to the shift to an Experience Economy and the growing ambition of many organisations to become ‘learning organisations’.

Ultimately, feedback can increase our speed of growth, both on an organisational and personal level. Understanding how to appropriately give and receive feedback is one of the most important skills for us in order to thrive.

The ROI of Feedback

When feedback is implemented in an organisation, communication between employees and leadership opens. Leading humans is still exactly that: human interaction. For employees to feel connected to their employer, team or supervisor, they need to know they can trust them. Feedback, when practiced appropriately and regularly, is the best tool to establish trust and nurture healthy relationships at work.

Leaders lower the chances of turning away employees in their team by using feedback as a primer for both sharing and receiving goals, dealing with challenges, and improving process and performance.

Gallup estimated that disengaged employees cost the US up to 550 billion USD in productivity each year. While only 1 in 5 employees are categorized as actively disengaged, depending on the size of your organisation, that can be a large portion of the workforce. Regular feedback keeps talent on track and increases opportunities for growth - for both individuals and the entire organisation. An engaged employee is a more productive and happier employee.

Companies who average 9 engaged employees for every disengaged employee (compared to 1 in 5 employees being disengaged) experienced 147% higher earnings per share than their competition. That’s real money.

The Challenges of Feedback

Yes, feedback is awesome and the concept is simple - tell people what they’re doing great and what they’re doing wrong and they’ll either do more of it or fix it. Of course we all know, in reality it’s not that simple. When it comes to establishing feedback as a key-communication component in a team or organisation, many challenges can emerge.

Launching feedback is not an easy task. Feedback does not live in a vacuum and requires a strategic approach - establishing clear objectives as well as planning regular sessions that do not only address performance on tasks, but also revise team processes and individual behaviours that influence team dynamics. If you’re first starting out with feedback, it makes sense to design a set process to help you develop and later refine the habit in order to get used to the effects. We have some suggestions below: different ways to give feedback, what to look out for when timing feedback, and deciding the ratio between positive and constructive feedback.

Getting everybody on board with feedback can be difficult. Introducing feedback to a group can result in a lot of tension between group members but also for the individual. Many of us never really learned to deal with feedback - no matter if it’s positive or constructive. Do you have friends that can’t take a compliment? Do you know someone who gets angry, even when you only ask them to change a small thing they’re doing? It’s likely those people have never been exposed to proper feedback or aren’t mentally prepared to deal with it, automatically seeing it as a threat. And it’s just as likely that you have individuals like them in your team.

It’s important to introduce feedback slowly by explaining different concepts, testing out various feedback tools and tactics to make everyone comfortable. The fear of giving and receiving feedback is very real for some and needs to be dealt with delicately. It can also help to talk about common fears: Are you afraid to lose face? Are you worried you’ll risk conflict? Do you fear you’ll negatively impact a personal relationship?

Last but not least, let’s not forget the impact culture can have on how we react to feedback. Some cultures are more used and open to feedback than others and in diverse teams, it’s important that cultural background is taken into account before specific tactics are chosen. Bringing a skilled facilitator into the room that ensures an equal sharing of voice can be key to working with cultural hesitations. If you’re looking for inspiration on how to work with a diverse team, reach out to us and we’ll connect you to an expert on the topic.

Making Feedback work for you

There are many factors that influence the effectiveness of feedback. The most important ones, however, are timing, regular practice, the ratio of positive and constructive feedback, and addressing several levels of the individual (holistic feedback).


Feedback needs to occur at the right time. Much research has been done on the timing of feedback, particularly contrasting immediate and delayed feedback.

Immediate feedback during a task can result in faster rates of acquisition. Before deciding when to give feedback, we must be aware of the objective. Do we want to affect how a task is currently done, or do we want to feedback an entire process? Do we dislike a certain behaviour an individual shows or the result this behaviour has on i.e. a project outcome?

What do you believe are the main difference between feedbacking a task, feedbacking a process and feedbacking a person?


  • Feedbacking a task: Cooking a meal

  • Feedbacking a process: How the meal was cooked

  • Feedbacking a person: What the cook said while cooking the meal and how it made us feel

Take notes on the main differences you recognize. Next time you’re asked to give feedback, remember what type of feedback you’re giving and how it affects the delivery.

Suggested Exercise: [Conflict Response Reflection]

Regular Practice

Feedback needs to be practiced regularly to establish as part of the team culture. Especially if we’re not used to receiving and giving feedback, practicing feedback regularly can help us become more comfortable and reap all benefits. For new teams, feedback should be on the agenda ideally every other week. Different tactics and tools should be tested to find the ones that work best in your specific context. The sooner you can build a culture that enables immediate feedback, the better for your team. In order to achieve that, it may prove helpful to share personal examples of when you’ve received feedback and how it made you feel or helped you improve. If you don’t have a lot of experience with feedback, bringing in somebody skilled can be a great support.

Start Stop Continue A tool that works great both verbally and in writing and only takes up a few minutes of your time is START STOP CONTINUE. This way of giving feedback focuses on delivering constructive feedback in a positive manner

If you’re practicing this tool in a group, ask each member of the group to address one individual at a time. Participants should reflect on each of the three prompts (Start, Stop, Continue) focused on a clear objective (i.e. improving collaboration on a specific project), but they do not have to use all three if they cannot think of relevant feedback.

  1. Something I would like you to START doing is...

  2. Something I would like you to STOP doing is...

  3. Something I would like you to CONTINUE doing is...

If practiced verbally, ask participants to keep their sentences concise and clear and to restrain from explaining their reasoning. Both if practiced in writing or verbally, make sure participants have time to reflect on the feedback they receive and potentially ask questions.

This tool can be great to practice feedback on your own. Imagine a person you really value, like a good friend. What would the three sentences of feedback about his behaviour look like? Now imagine someone you’ve had conflicts with in the past. What feedback do you have for her?

We often find ourselves telling people to stop doing something we dislike or to start doing something that they haven’t practiced. But how often do you tell someone to continue to do something? This is where positivity comes in and impact is built. Instead of just feeling criticized, you’re also complimenting a good behaviour.

Feedback that sticks

Feedback needs to address several levels in order to stick. According to Hattie (2007), levels of feedback include the task performance, the process of understanding how to do a task, and the self or personal level (unrelated to the specifics of the task, just focused on behaviour).

When we receive feedback for a specific task, we often can’t help but also feel feedbacked as an individual. In order to make it easier for us to separate task and practice feedback from personal feedback, it’s important that feedback is given holistically - addressing all the different levels separately to leave little to no room for unclarity that may lead to assumptions.

It is just as important to hit the sweet spot in terms of the ratio between positive and constructive feedback. Many researchers have tried to find a mathematical approach to this. Two prominent examples are the Losada Ratio and the Gottman studies. While the exact math remains to be scientifically validated, all sources suggest that positive feedback should always outweigh constructive feedback to make feedback effective.

Leaders should be aware of the ratio of positive and negative comments made and endeavor to move the proportion in favor of positive feedback to ensure feedback is received well and leads to maximum improvements.

An organisation that has developed their own approach for holistic feedback is McKinsey.

X, Y, Z Feedback In order to counteract the typical consultant habit of just focusing on performance, McKinsey developed a framework for delivering structured feedback called "the McKinsey feedback model" or “X, Y, Z Feedback”. The intent of this model is to make feedback:


  • Fact-based

  • Less personal

  • Irrefutable

  • Actionable

The recommended format to deliver any feedback is the non-violent communication inspired: "When you did [X], it made me feel [Y]. In the future, I would recommend that you do [Z]."

The X - Referencing specific actions The more specific the example given, the more vivid and memorable the feedback. Being fact-based keeps feedback from feeling too personal to the recipient.

The Y - Including how it made you feel Explaining how the recipient's action made you feel [Y] is unarguable. Our feelings and reactions are our own and no one can deny them. The intent of the first two steps is to set the stage for giving the constructive recommendation for change without getting derailed by debating the context. The objective of the Y is to highlight what makes us tick and to understand how we may trigger one another.

The Z - Specific suggestions The point of providing feedback is so that someone can improve. If someone receives feedback that is too vague, it misses the point of them understanding how to do something better next time. Feedback should be provided in such a way that if the recipient does what you recommend, it will solve the problem illustrated with [X] and prevent [Y] from occurring again.

Need an example? Here’s a very common situation that you can practice McKinsey style feedback on: "When you were late to our meeting this morning, it made me feel that you don't value my time. In the future, I would recommend you plan on arriving early to meetings and call my mobile phone if a delay can't be avoided."

Let’s remind ourselves: feedback is most effective when the timing is right, it’s practiced regularly, and it leaves no room for unclarity about its objective. We should also be mindful of the ratio between positive and constructive feedback, to ensure feedback sticks. When effective feedback is practiced, we can find flow in our work, become aware of ourselves and the people around us, and grow - personally, professionally, as a team, and even as an organisation.