Too much feedback is just a bad thing

We coach, develop and work alongside leaders and teams to shift ideas on leadership and provide the skills and tools needed to grow teams.


Author: Phil Hartwick
First Published: 2021

I am a leadership coach.

As part of setting up a new coaching relationship, I often have a set-up meeting with the coachee and their manager. During this ‘three-way’ meeting I ask the manager to outline what they would like their direct report to use the coaching to focus on.

One of my recent coaching relationship set up meetings reminded me that too much feedback is a bad thing.

With the best intentions, the (rather extroverted) manager contributed long-wided descriptions with examples of 3 different areas that the person needed to improve. At the end of each,  I asked the coachee to recount what they had heard to make sure that they were clear about what to work on.

It felt brutal by the end.

Following that conversation I discussed with the coachee how they felt. Their answer: “Overwhelmed with all that feedback”. And do you know what her main objective was?

‘I want to rebuild my confidence’ 

Well that was no surprise!

As I think back in my time as a people manager, I am sure I was similar to the manager in the story above. After all, I thought giving feedback was my role. I was helping ‘my people’ to develop by pointing out what they needed to get better at. My intentions were genuine.

I had been taught that feedback should be specific, timely and ideally future focused. Oh, and ideally only one thing at a time. I practised these techniques and then eventually began teaching them to others.

But I have discovered a much better way to help people change or improve.

Before I tell what my tip is, I’d like to tell you how I discovered it.

I was teaching a classroom of eager students who were there to learn influencing skills and become more persuasive. In this particular workshop we would have each person give their own pre-prepared persuasive pitch, then ask for two classroom participants to give feedback. Last I would give my feedback with suggestions for improvement.

Therefore the person who had presented would get feedback from three different people. As those giving feedback saw different opportunities to improve, they often gave different feedback, typically starting with descriptions of what was not good, followed by a suggestion, or two or three. Lots of feedback….

In hindsight, I don’t think this was particularly helpful and left many people with reduced confidence – which is the last thing you want when trying to persuade others!

One day,  I had the opportunity to observe another very skilled facilitator teach the same programme. I noticed that he ran it very differently. And the pattern I observed was this:

1. The person would present their persuasive pitch (just like in my workshops)

2. He would then ask them: “How did that go for you?”

3. They would answer,  and he encourage them to come up with their own insights and what was good and not so good.

4.Then, after they had explored enough, he would ask:

So if you were to do it again, what would you do differently?”

            Now here is the beauty of this approach:

They gave themselves feedback!

But this was not the end. Depending upon their answer to the question above,  there were two directions this conversation could go:

a)     They would then ask: “ What do you think?”

This was an invitation to the facilitator to give them feedback. At which point he could either agree with what they had already suggested, or could give them an alternative suggestion. Often I would hear him reinforce their performance with positive feedback, building confidence.

b)    If they didn’t ask for his feedback, and he wanted them to see something they hadn’t mentioned, he would ask: “Can I make a suggestion?” and then he would provide one simple suggestion to help them improve.

So there is my improved approach to helping someone change or get better. In a nutshell:

1.     Ask them to reflect on their own performance

How did that go?”

2.     Ask them to give themselves feedback

What would you do differently if you were to do it again?”

3.     Wait to be asked to give feedback yourself.  Or, if you have something different to suggest say: 

“Can I make one suggestion?”

Just magic!

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