How to Give Feedback that Actually Helps

Todd Hall
Professional Development
April 13, 2015

Imagine this scenario. You get an email from your boss saying: “It’s time for your annual review. I had several people fill out an evaluation of your work as part of a 360 Performance Review. Let’s meet tomorrow to go over it. It shouldn’t take long, but there are a few issues that we should address.”

Now, what are you feeling after you get this email? If your brain is running on at least a couple cylinders, you probably feel threatened and anxious.

You go to your meeting the next day with your boss.  He seems rushed, and starts off with negative feedback by anonymous co-workers. He treats the negative feedback at face value without understanding the context of the situations, and without asking for your input. He summarizes the things you need to work on and sends you on your way with no plan to actually help you address these issues.

How do you feel now after your imaginary meeting with your boss? Let me venture a wild guess: defensive and angry?

How Do We Experience Critical Feedback?: Research on Performance Reviews

Chances are you’ve had a negative experience like this with performance reviews. It seems to be an all-too-common experience. For example, a 2013 study on “Keys to Performance Management” found that while almost nine out of ten companies use performance management ratings, only three out of ten employees felt they are fair.

In a 2014 research report by the Society for Human Resource Management, 20% of the participants gave their organization a grade of C on performance management, while 75% gave their organizations a B or C. Only 2% gave their organizations an A.

So maybe performance reviews feel unfair to some employees. But do they help the bottom line? The evidence is murky at best. Consider Watson-Wyatt’s (2002) conclusion from a study of the human resources practices of 750 large North American companies: “Multisource feedback continues to enjoy mass popularity, and many, if not most, businesses report that they feel it is successful. Yet, when the impact on market value for evaluating superiors and evaluating peers is combined our research suggests it is linked to a decrease of 10.6 percent.”

Why Does Feedback Make Us Defensive and Angry? Neuroscience Weighs In

Taken together, the research mirrors our experience: performance reviews are typically unhelpful for employees’ development, and for organizational effectiveness.

So why do performance reviews so often feel unfair? Why do they leave us feeling angry and defensive?

It turns out neuroscience and psychology provide some answers. In an article challenging the 360 performance review, Phil Dixon, David Rock, and Kevin Ochsner (2010) explain that feedback—as it’s typically delivered—is often perceived as threatening.

Perceived Threats and Our Innate Needs: The SCARF Model

David Rock (2008) developed a brain-based model for thinking about how we collaborate with others; which is inherently tied to matters of work and performance reviews.  Based on five of our innate needs related to collaboration, Rock developed the acronym SCARF:

Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, and Fairness.

When you think about the typical feedback session through the SCARF lens, you can see that all five dimensions are triggered into some level of threat.


When you’re reviewed, especially by someone of a higher status, there is a potential drop in your status. In addition, numeric ratings, and especially forced rankings, tend to demoralize people as they signify a lower status than some co-workers. You’re naturally on alert and feel threatened.


You often have very little knowledge of what to expect from the feedback process. Is your job on the line? Will your job change significantly? There is a high degree of uncertainty, creating a state of threat.


You’re typically given very little input into the overall feedback process. You have little to no say as to when and how feedback will be collected, by whom, and how it will be delivered. Naturally, your sense of autonomy is threatened.


Your brain may now evaluate your boss as someone who is not out for your best interest, and so your sense of relatedness is threatened.


When feedback from others is treated as objective, taken out of context, and not part of a true dialogue, your sense of fairness can be threatened.

The Chain-Reaction of Human Response to Threat

It’s bad enough when one of these fundamental needs is threatened, but when more than one is threatened, it can have an exponential negative effect. This is what Dixon and colleagues call the “multiplier effect.”

When you feel threatened, three interrelated things happen that work against the main purpose of performance reviews—which (it’s important to remember) is to help employees learn, develop, and improve performance.

First, you experience social pain (Eisenberger & Lieberman, 2004; Lieberman, 2014). We all know the feeling of social or emotional pain. It hurts even though it’s a different kind of pain than physical pain. Social pain, it turns out, lights up largely the same brain regions as those that underlie physical pain.

Second, when you’re threatened and experiencing social pain, it’s much more difficult to self-regulate and take in new information that can help you change and grow.

Third, being in a threat state causes your brain to favor using its automatic habit system, and to decrease higher cognitive functioning performed by the prefrontal cortex. Basically, your brain goes into protection mode, which makes it more difficult to change your habitual ways of feeling and behaving. We know from attachment research that you have to have a baseline level of security to explore, which includes reflecting on yourself and changing. In short, when you feel threatened, it makes it very difficult to learn, and very likely that you’ll dismiss the feedback.

Giving and Receiving Feedback: A Better Way

By now you might be thinking, “There has to be a better way to provide feedback.” And there is. According to a recent Strategy + Business article by David Rock, Josh Davis, and Beth Jones, “Kill Your Performance Ratings,” a growing number of companies are replacing traditional ratings-based evaluations with in-depth conversations. These companies include Abode, Cargill, ConAgra, Gap, Intel, Juniper Networks, Medtronic, Sears, and Microsoft, which revamped its entire performance evaluation process in 2013. Other companies are working to improve their existing process to focus on making feedback a constructive, rather than destructive, strategy for improving engagement and productivity in the workplace.

Whichever route you take, the key is to intentionally reduce threat as much as possible and to make feedback part of an ongoing relational process that demonstrates—above all else—that you care for your employees.

Here are nine practices to help you give feedback that truly helps people develop. These can be used as part of a formal evaluation but also, ideally, throughout the year. Practices #7 and #8 emphasize alternatives to the traditional performance review. If you’re not directly supervising someone, these practices will help you gain some perspective in your own performance reviews, as well as collaborate more effectively with your colleagues.

9 Ways to Give Feedback That Actually Helps

1. Before you provide feedback, check your motives and mindset.  Are you truly motivated to help this person grow and develop? If not, you need to figure this out first before you provide any feedback. If there is something unresolved from a specific situation or problem, you need to get that resolved before you give general feedback.

Is your mindset focused on checking a to-do off your list, satisfying a requirement from your boss, or truly helping your employee grow as a person and an employee? If it’s the former, you need to take a step back and create the conditions for the internal space to focus on the well-being of your employees.

2. Listen first.  Before you provide feedback, set a separate meeting with the sole agenda of getting feedback on your performance. Ask the person if he or she has feedback for you. Ask questions such as: “How am I doing as your supervisor? What’s working, and what do you need from me to help you thrive that you’re not getting?” Then listen and ask clarifying questions. Don’t respond right away. And don’t get into evaluating the other’s performance in that meeting. You don’t want this to feel like a bait and switch.

Reflect on what you heard and then let the employee know specific ways you plan to be responsive to their feedback. Take responsibility for your shortcomings. It doesn’t mean you have to respond to everything, or that you don’t challenge the person to stretch in some ways, but truly caring about your employee’s perspective builds trust and loyalty. It also gives you the opportunity to model how you want your employees to respond. You want your employees to listen and take in other people’s perspectives. Your job is to lead by example. Go first and you’ll earn your employee’s trust.

3. Make sure the goals to be evaluated are clear.  If you’re providing formal feedback on annual goals, make sure you set things up so that the goals are clear to everyone involved. How will you know your employee was successful? If you can’t answer that question, you need to revisit your employees’ goals with them in an interactive process.

4. Give as much autonomy as possible over the feedback process.  What are aspects of the process over which you can give your employees choice? For example, perhaps you can allow your employees to designate at least some of the people who evaluate their performance in a 360-type evaluation. Can you give employees some say over when and where the evaluation is held? If goals are interactively set, this also gives employees some say over what is evaluated.

5. Look at performance through the lens of core motivations.  Take the time to understand what makes your employees tick. What drives them? How are they uniquely wired? What gives them a great sense of satisfaction?

Have them describe several achievement stories and look for themes.  The MCORE assessment, which we talked about in lesson 3, will identify their core motivations and three achievement stories to help you start the conversation. Understanding what drives an employee will help both of you make sense of their why—why they did really well in certain areas and not as well in other areas.

In many cases sub-par performance isn’t because an employee isn’t conscientious, hard working, and professional; it’s because they’re not motivated to do certain types of tasks. Making sense of behaviors and performance from an empathic standpoint decreases threat. And you can use this information to align an employee’s job tasks around their core motivations as much as possible, which we talked about in the previous lessons.

6. Make feedback regular, relevant, and real-time.  Regular, more frequent feedback is much better for people than a once-a-year, official performance review. This helps your employees course-correct more quickly and reduces the likelihood of misunderstandings about expectations. Research shows that feedback that is specific to a particular set of behaviors and given quickly after the behaviors is more effective than general feedback given at a much later date.

This is how good coaching works in sports. When a basketball player makes a bad decision in a play, the coach pulls him aside and points out what he could have done better right after the play happens. You can’t always do this in the workplace, but as much as possible try to give specific, real-time feedback.

7. Use structured conversations.  The companies that are moving to a no-rating system (which I mentioned earlier) tend to move to one of two alternative approaches.  The first alternative is to set up a highly structured conversation about performance. For example, human resources may identify several broad topic areas to help structure feedback conversations, such as career development, contribution, collaboration, and innovation. These companies also provide some guidance on how to talk about these topics.

According to David Rock and colleagues in their article “Kill Your Performance Ratings,” since eliminating ratings and forced rankings in favor of structured conversations, Juniper has seen participation and satisfaction with the process increase dramatically. On their semi-annual “conversation day,” 88 percent of the participants reported their conversations to be “helpful” or “very helpful.”

Consistent with Juniper’s findings, Cargill ran a no-rating pilot of several thousand employees for three years and found that 90 percent reported that their feedback conversations were positive, a sharp contrast to the typical experience of the traditional performance review.

If you don’t have categories provided for you, you can develop your own set. What are the most important areas for you and employees to address? Start with your employees’ perceptions in these areas. Listen and make it a true dialogue.

8. Use guided conversations.  A second alternative is to use guided conversations. Instead of specific topics, you focus the conversation around the general framework of people’s goals and their progress. You can also focus on people’s contributions to the organization and how they can maximize that given their talents and core motivations. You can see there is overlap among these last two, and you can easily blend them by structuring the conversation around a few key topics, but also focusing on the employee’s goals and contributions within those areas.

David Rock and colleagues (“Kill Your Performance Ratings”) note that no-rating systems demonstrate dramatically better results than traditional ratings and forced rankings in satisfaction, retention, and engagement scores, which correlate with organizational performance.  In other words, companies who transitioned to some form of a “no-rating” system saw their satisfaction with the review process, retention and engagement increase compared to when they used a rating system.

Whatever direction you go to improve the way you give (and receive) feedback, there is one practice that functions as a catalyst for all the others.

9. Promote a growth mindset.  Whether you use a structured or guided conversation or opt to add some form of rating system, one key is to promote a “growth mindset.” A growth mindset helps people internalize feedback, empowers them to set stretch goals, and increases learning from positive role models.

Carol Dweck, professor of psychology at Stanford, discovered that people generally hold one of two implicit theories about growth and learning.  An implicit theory is one you hold in the background without necessarily being aware of it.  The “fixed mindset” believes that intelligence and talent are established early in life, and are fairly static. A “growth mindset,” in contrast, holds that people can grow and learn throughout their lives. 4

The reality is we can all grow and learn throughout our lives, but a fixed mindset hampers development. You may hold a fixed mindset toward some areas and a growth mindset toward others.

First, apply this to yourself in terms of how you give feedback. Do you have a fixed mindset or growth mindset about your ability to give feedback in a helpful manner? If it’s fixed, you’re probably not putting in the thought and effort required to grow in your ability to give feedback well. Once you identify this mindset, make a commitment to set it aside and do one thing to improve in this area the next time you give feedback.

Second, use growth mindset language to activate or prime this mindset in your employees. For example, focusing on talent (e.g., “you’re really talented at coordinating projects”) activates a fixed mindset because we generally think of talent as innate and static. In contrast, emphasizing effort and learning (e.g., “you really poured yourself into learning about this area”) activates a growth mindset in people. The effort people bring to their talents and core motivations leads to learning and growth and you can encourage this with growth mindset language. This translates into a growth mindset culture, where the focus is on everyone developing their unique contribution, rather than a zero-sum (or fixed mindset) culture, where the advancement of one person implies the decline of another.

In your role as an employee, you can also focus on taking on new challenges and developing rather than on static positions or comparisons with co-workers, which promote a fixed mindset.

There is some evidence to suggest that priming for a growth mindset works. David Rock and colleagues noted that in one study, priming a group of managers for a growth mindset resulted in more confidence in their abilities and an increased likelihood of following the example of a positive role model.

The key takeaways for providing feedback that actually helps are:

1. Reduce threat.

2. Make feedback part of an ongoing relational process.

3. Foster a growth mindset.

When you can put each of these into practice, you’ll demonstrate care for the well-being for your co-workers and employees.

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Dixon, P., Rock, D. & Ochsner, K. (2010). "Turn the 360 Around." NeuroLeadership Journal, 3, 1-9.
Eisenberger, N. I. & Lieberman, M. D. (2004). Why rejection hurts: A common neural alarm system for physical and social pain. Trends in Cognitive Science. 8(7), 294-300
Lieberman, M.D. (2013). Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect. Crown.
Lieberman, M.D. & Eisenberger, N.I. (2008). "The pains and pleasures of social life: A social cognitive neuroscience approach." NeuroLeadership Journal, 1, 38-43.
Watson-Wyatt (2002). Human capital index: Human capital as a lead indicator of shareholder value.