Three common missteps when delivering feedback (told by the data!)

At The Experience Accelerator, we’re in the process of building unique data sets on behavioural skills.  Through our fully virtual “visualise/practice/feedback” learning loops, we are gaining tremendous insights on what goes systematically right and wrong for our learners when seeking to improve their soft skills.

In a world where people analytics and delivering change at scale is ever more important, we’re excited to share what we have found.

In a before and after learning study conducted with final year students at the University of Bahrain, we discovered the impact of our platform supported a 40-80% improvement in feedback delivery skills.  But it was really when we scratched the surface of these findings along with our data set of close to 100 learners that we started to see some interesting patterns:

Performance declines the further you get through the feedback conversation.  Our learners start well, build a good foundation for the conversation and communicate clearly the intent for why they are sharing this feedback.  Most learners also describe the context and what happened reasonably well.  Then things start to go off track.  Learners tend to skip over describing the impact of the situation which in turn impacts their ability to create ownership from the other person and worse still, we see a lack of tangible next steps or commitments to future improvement.  And so no surprises when we assess their ability to structure a feedback conversation more holistically, they don’t score as well as they or we would like.

So why is this trail off so pronounced across so many learners?  We see three factors in play:

Automaticity  is the ability to do things without occupying the mind with the low-level details required, allowing it to become an automatic response pattern or habit. Source:  Wikipedia.  Being able to hold the 5 or 6 things in your mind that make for a good feedback conversation takes deliberate practice and focus before it becomes simpler and more automatic.  Many traditional learning practices simply don’t create the time and space to build this automaticity.

Mindset about relationship damage – it’s critical to examine your motives for giving (or not giving) feedback to a colleague, friend, manager or direct report.  Many of our learners, particularly our Millennial and Gen Z learners, cited concerns about “breaking the relationship” if they gave developmental feedback.  This translates into a) prevaricating before sharing what happened and b) an abdication from the steps of describing impact, encouraging ownership and helping to formulate the “what now”.  We work on helping to flip this mindset with questions like:  “what if that person continues to fail in this particular situation because you have chosen not to tell them?”

Emotional hijacking – Daniel Goleman coined the term amygdala hijack and you can learn more about it in this short interview.  An interview with Daniel Goleman. What we observe is we come to these (often difficult) conversations with a certain amount of stress (see point 2 above!) and often, the recipient of our message may react defensively or start to attack our beliefs, observations etc.  This seems to trigger a fight or flight response for many of our learners which causes them to derail on some of the latter steps.  They become emotional themselves, they argue or they retreat.  We encourage a combination of empathy, genuine curiosity, preparation and facts as tools to protect against hijacks.  It’s also important to help learners understand how high performing teams deliver positive and developmental feedback in much more different ratios than you’d think – there’s an interesting HBR article here on that:  Give your team more effective positive feedback

We’ll close this short blog with a fascinating observation from a dear colleague and partner of ours:

“Fundamentally, we are messy beings with lots of needs.  Learning how to manage someone elses’ while regulating your own takes a certain amount of focus and mastery.   Iterative practice is so useful in this domain” – Dr Diza Sauers, Professor of Practice, Eller Management School, University of Arizona

For more information about the learning vehicle that helps us generate these insights, please visit us at: