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Many of us dread "feedback season." While some exit their reviews happily and even closer to their managers or mentors, others aren't always so lucky and leave their dejected and defeated. Regardless of the feedback you receive, however, there are research-backed steps you can take to come out on top, make the conversation productive and positive, and recover from any negative feedback.

On the other hand, those who conduct the reviews also learn how to make feedback delivery fruitful and mutually beneficial. Use the tips from Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well to catalyze the types of changes to look for in employees this year with concepts such as feedback triggers and how to avoid them, why to look beyond feedback labels, and how body language and facial expressions can give people away.

Top 20 insights

  1. There are three main types of feedback: 1) appreciation (i.e. "thanks"), 2) coaching (i.e. "this is a better way"), and 3) evaluation (i.e. "you scored poorly"). Employees and company culture thrive the most when managers are capable to give feedback in all three areas.
  2. During feedback delivery, evaluation-type feedback should come first. Coaching-type feedback should then wait at least a few days. Evaluations are so psychologically striking that any coaching delivered immediately after will be lost.
  3. For appreciation-type feedback to resonate, three prerequisites must be present. The feedback must be 1) specific, 2) authentic, and 3) in a form valued by the recipient. Possible forms include gestures such as public recognition, monetary compensation, heartfelt private conversations, or promotions and titles.
  4. Feedback often comes via generic labels, such as "be more assertive" or "be more proactive." Cut through vagueness and prove for specificity in two areas: 1) What was the actual observation of your behavior and the interpretation of it, and 2) What advice do they have as a result?
  5. To better receive feedback that you disagree with outright, try to understand what's right about the reviewer's vantage point or approach. You can salvage the relationship and glean some good from the feedback if you acknowledge the details you do agree with.
  6. A major blind spot for both the feedback deliverer and the recipient is facial expression and tone. Others can see how you really feel more accurately than you think due to evolutionary skills that promoted human cooperation and competition. Research has also shown that we can't accurately judge the tone of our own voice while we are speaking.
  7. To identify your blind spots, simply monitor yourself for outsized reactions to the feedback you receive. When you say, "What could they be thinking" or "What's their problem", your blind spot red flag should also be waving.
  8. Go to your harshest critic to maximize your growth potential via feedback. Those with whom you always seem to have tension will be able to cut through to the spots where you need work. While challenging, this practice can be the most rewarding.
  9. Your reaction to feedback is a combination of three variables unique to each individual: 1) Your baseline level of happiness, 2) The depth of the swing your mood takes with the reception of feedback, and 3) Sustain and recovery, or how long it takes you to return to baseline.
  10. Be mindful of how these three feedback variables are at play in your own feedback experiences. For example, those who recover more quickly from negative feedback may bounce back more confidently. However, they may not take valuable feedback as much to heart and ignore opportunities to correct significant issues.
  11. When you deliver feedback, be sensitive to the recipient and understand that "baseline happiness," "swing," and "sustain and recovery" can vary as much as 3,000% from person to person. Your reaction to perceived minor feedback will not be how another person would process the same piece of information emotionally.
  12. Research indicates that baseline happiness has a 50-40-10 split. 50% seems to be wired in, 40% is how we interpret and respond to what happens to us, and only 10% is based on circumstances. This breakdown allows a significant margin where intentional positive interpretations can make a difference.
  13. Don't attempt to hide one piece of negative feedback in a mountain of positive comments – you won't be successful. Psychologists explain how humans developed stronger emotional and physical responses to threats and danger versus positive experiences as a means of survival and will therefore always notice the negative.
  14. Prepare to receive potentially challenging feedback with a refusal to accept simple identity labels. Since feedback often threatens our sense of self, this mindset will put you on solid ground.
  15. Another mindset shift to embrace is a growth mindset rather than a fixed mindset. This allows you to see new possibilities alongside negative feedback rather than a poor picture of your skills or qualities.
  16. To motivate employees and encourage healthy risk-taking, praise effort rather than talent. Say, "I appreciate your dedication" instead of "You're really smart." Studies demonstrate that this approach motivates people for new challenges.
  17. If your manager points you towards a better way, don't assume he or she thinks poorly of you. Keep in mind that coaching-type and evaluation-type feedback are not the same.
  18. Research shows that humans are wired for empathy only if we deem the other person good or fair. This means that to internalize what the other person is saying, there must be mutual respect. At the very least, limit any offenses around the time of feedback.
  19. Can't stand the person who is going to give you feedback that you're sure you'll disagree with? If this is unavoidable and you expect conflict to occur, make it known that your primary goal is "understanding." Remind yourself that there is no obligation to agree with or change as a result of their claims.
  20. A powerful tactic for when you disagree with a piece of feedback and want to assert your viewpoint is not to prove the other person wrong. Instead, state what's been left out. When you express that they might not have all the information for a fairly constructed feedback.


Before you start on the next review cycle, understand the latest research on the delivery and reception of feedback. From this book summary, learn about the three contexts that block feedback and the three different kinds of feedback: appreciation, coaching, and evaluation. Find out how to move beyond your blind spots and really see what people have been trying to tell you for years. Discover ways to increase resiliency and positivity while receiving feedback. Finally, learn how to stand up for yourself throughout this feedback process without being defensive or threatening.

Three feedback "triggers"

We all know the heart-pounding, anxiety-inducing, tunnel-vision feelings that go along with negative feedback. Such reactions often mean we have been triggered, in other words, feel threatened by the feedback. There are three main types of triggers that can lead to someone reacting this way. If you trigger someone while sharing feedback, they will likely reject your feedback and block it out. Understanding these triggers can help you avoid upsetting others when giving feedback and be more aware of your reactions when receiving feedback. The three triggers are:

  1. Truth Triggers – Feedback you think is untrue
  2. Relationship Triggers – Feedback that comes from someone with whom you have a complex relationship
  3. Identity Triggers – Feedback that threatens your core identity

Truth triggers

"Managing truth triggers is…about recognizing that it's always more complicated than it appears and working hard to first understand."

Feedback has undoubtedly hit a "truth trigger" when the response is outright denial and offense. But there's a strong chance the recipient just hasn't truly understood what the deliverer is trying to say. Be alert to feelings of denial and be aware that it means you need to ask deeper-level questions to be sure you're getting under the surface of the feedback. You can't say it's wrong unless you understand what's being said.

Relationship triggers

"Feedback in relationships is rarely the story of you or me. It's more often the story of you and me."

Feedback is blocked by a relationship trigger when we reject the information on account of the deliverer. You may have been receptive to the feedback from someone else, but it is a non-starter coming from this person. Maybe you don't think very highly of them, they're likely to have ulterior motives, or your personalities just don't jive. Whatever the reason, be sure not to let your relationship with them get in the way of benefiting from the core of the feedback they're sharing. Side-barring to the issues in your relationship can be a big distraction from insights they have about your performance, as much as you may hate to admit it.

Identity triggers

When feedback strikes at the core of how we envision ourselves, we will instinctively block it out to ward off the threat. The feedback has hit too close to home, and our defenses go up. Being open to this kind of feedback invites a certain vulnerability, but the growth opportunities abound if you're willing to go there. Prepare yourself for this kind of feedback by taking the initiative to reflect on your own personal "wiring" and level of resiliency. Put the feedback in its place as just that – feedback – not a judgment on your entire person. Adopt a growth mentality and be open to shifting your viewpoint on what you could be capable of.

Three kinds of feedback

Appreciative feedback

The greatest insights about performance and skills at work will fall on deaf ears if there isn't a basis of relationship between the two people. But you can create one by using appreciative feedback. The other two types of feedback – coaching and evaluation – are where the real "meat" of performance improvement occurs, but all three types are essential. You may think you're doing a good job at showing thanks to employees, but consider asking yourself a few questions to ensure the appreciative feedback is resonating.

First, be sure it's authentic. Saying "thanks everyone!" before going home early is not likely to have a positive effect, especially if everyone is hearing it at the same time. Take the time to think about a specific task someone did that took something off your plate or was proactive and helpful. Once you have that in mind, communicate your gratitude to them in a way that they are most likely to feel good about. For example, for the ladder-climber, mention their excellent work in front of another senior colleague. For an introverted staff member who prefers one-on-one conversations, stop by his office and share your praise. Authenticity, specificity, and format are all key to making the most out of the ways you express gratitude.

Coaching feedback

Coaching is aimed at trying to help someone learn, grow, or change. The focus is on helping the person improve.

Coaching will always include some level of evaluation. After all, when we're told to do things a different way, that feedback implies our current performance is at least somewhat inadequate. But if you find yourself receiving coaching feedback, consider yourself lucky, because this is the type of input that builds mentorship and helps you improve. Often, coaching feedback comes along with being assigned greater responsibility or additional tasks. This is a sign that others trust you to take on more, and their feedback is usually a good-natured attempt to help you meet those challenges. As discussed earlier, many people fail to deliver coaching feedback sensitively, and the feedback recipient could be triggered to block it out. However, keep in mind that most people are in it to help you improve to meet the expectations and demands head.

Evaluative feedback

Evaluation tells you where you stand. It's a direct assessment, ranking, or rating.

Many people balk at evaluation out of fear of falling short, but everyone admits that it's something they think about. For this reason, evaluative feedback must come before coaching. If you provide coaching without evaluation, you can be sure the recipient's inner monologue is filling in the gaps. When evaluations are solid, they help calm fears and assure employees that they are in good standing. Don't fall into the trap of sharing coaching and evaluation in the same breath, however. Reactions to evaluations are so powerful that the receiver is momentarily distracted so much such that he or she is unable to fully process the coaching feedback that would follow.

The best practice is to consistently express appreciation, regularly provide evaluations for employees, and then, after at least one day, give coaching feedback for areas to improve.

Tactics to better receive feedback

We've covered the feedback basics. There are three types of feedback and three types of triggers that can cause you to block out what might otherwise be helpful information. You can use that knowledge to both be a better feedback deliverer as well as improving your preparation and awareness when receiving feedback. Here are some additional tactics you can employ to harness this information during your review cycle.

Don't switch tracks

"Switching tracks," or jumping between two issues, occurs when someone is experiencing a "relationship trigger." Maybe Sally's boss has pointed out that she's been ten minutes late every morning this week. She's irked because yes, she's been late, but she's also seen her boss surfing Facebook at work in the afternoons, and he takes extended lunches almost daily. How is wasting company time during the day any different than first thing in the morning? Sally thinks he's a hypocrite and is angered he would even bring it up given the way he spends his time.

Sally needs to mentally acknowledge that there are two issues at play, as is usually the case with relationship triggers, and make every effort not to "switch tracks." The first issue is Sally's tardiness. The second issue is the way she's witnessed her boss spending company time during the day. If Sally and her boss both fixate on what the other person is doing wrong and deny the other's claims about their behavior, they'll be talking past each other and not make any progress. Before the conversation spirals out of control, Sally should make a mental note of the dual issues at play and make every effort to focus on them individually rather than always "switching tracks."

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Illuminate your blind spots

Let's take the same example. What if I told you that Sally had been ten minutes late at least three out of five days a week for the last couple of months? Everyone has "blind spots" that relate to the macro patterns in their life and the way they do things. Others can readily identify these for you, but chances are they haven't, unless you've asked them to be honest, and you have a strong relationship. Think about people you know; Consider the friend who's always starting a new workout regimen, your sister who claims she'll be satisfied after just one more remodeling project, or your colleague who insists he'll give up his workaholic tendencies this year.

People tend to return to their habits and patterns on a macro level, and most of us are blind to how we do the same. Sally is committed to her job and being a good employee, she just chronically underestimates the time it takes to get out the door. She never does a good job of budgeting her time in the morning but has never identified her own actions as the problem. One day it's traffic, and the next day it's a broken elevator. She always has an excuse, and she doesn't realize how often it happens.

So how can Sally illuminate her blind spots, and how can you, too, for that matter? Sally may think she knows everything about what's going on, but consider that the list of what she actually knows and can tell is quite short.

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What her boss can perceive about the situation is substantial. Contrary to what most people think, others have a far better read on our behavior than we do of ourselves.

"Who can see your face? Everyone. Who can't see your face? You."

Humans have evolved to be excellent judges of one's emotions and intentions by reading faces. While you think you may be adequately disguising your feelings, it's already all over your face, and yet you have no idea.

By studying infant brain development, researchers have identified the part of the brain that activates when a human can accurately judge different voice tones and their implications. Ever wonder why your own voice sounds funny when you hear it recorded and played back? It's because researchers found that when you are talking, the "tone" part of the brain shuts off and you're unable to hear how you really come across. Your inability to hear how you sound or see what your face looks like when you communicate something means that others are much better judges of your behavior and expressions.

While you can't change some of these factors, you can take some steps to make your blind spots, especially your macro patterns, more visible to you. The first thing you can do is keep on high alert for your "truth trigger." When your first reaction is to say, "That's not true!" or "Where on earth did they get that?", consider that they may have identified a blind spot. In these cases, let your guard down and try to be receptive. When having a feedback conversation, ask, "How do you see me getting in my own way?" This question invites their specific assessment of your behavior and is much more effective at drawing out blind spot observations than a general, "How am I doing?"

Lastly, don't be afraid to go to the tough places for criticism. People with whom you've always had tension or disagreement probably have insight into your blind spots. Supporters may not be as honest or may have the same blind spots in common with you.

How to productively disagree

Listening and discussing feedback with someone doesn't mean that you must agree with them. In fact, many times the feedback is misguided or at the least missing crucial information. They haven't heard your side of the story. There's a way to communicate your viewpoint without being off-putting or saying "that's wrong" outright.

Instead of outright denying the feedback, position your comment as additional information. Use phrases like "You may not know that…" or "As context…" You know that this information nullifies their feedback, but they don't have to hear it that way. This tactic preserves the relationship while also ensuring your side of the story is heard and being considered.