Feedback: A Formula to Face and Embrace

Is feedback important?  We’d all say a resounding, “Yes!” Yet how many of us ever ask for feedback on our leadership? Or ask what’s expected of us, both the spoken and unspoken? And how many of us make giving/getting feedback part of our everyday?

Feedback is merely information that helps us know whether we are on track. Sounds so simple. Sadly, we’ve all been on the receiving end of the feedback sandwich (sometimes called something less pleasant). You know the one.  It’s feedback where the criticism is nicely buried between two compliments.  Similarly, we’ve been invited into what seemed like a feedback conversation only to realize that the seemingly open-ended questions were leading to a foregone conclusion.

Whether we know it or not, our very identity is threatened by the idea of giving and receiving feedback.  Will I offend? Will I look stupid/be wrong? Will I fail?

It’s not much wonder we avoid asking for and giving feedback or at least procrastinate greatly.

When my colleague Tim Edris and I work together with a whole leadership team to improve their individual and collective effectiveness, we make feedback THE central issue for the entire year! That’s how challenging it can be to get good at giving and receiving honest feedback. And this emphasis shows how vital feedback is to improving leadership effectiveness.  

A reframe from “people as problems” to “people as sense-makers¹ is one way to embrace giving feedback and become effective. Genuine curiosity about the other person gets us out of our own hang-ups and can make for a great conversation.  

What if this person weren’t a problem for me to solve but a key knowledge holder for me to understand?

Let’s say your Chief Financial Officer, Regina, slammed her fist on the table in your senior management meeting this morning.  You feel scared to address it head on but it was so derailing to the meeting that you know you must. In your head, you’ve already assigned some meaning to the outburst and you’re racing ahead to how you can make this issue go away. Whether you realized it or not, you’re racing up your Ladder of Inference.²  It’s a pretty shaky spot for a leader to stand on.

Ladder of InferenceThankfully, a few adjustments can put you on solid footing for your feedback conversation. In Simple Habits for Complex Times, Jennifer Garvey Berger and Keith Johnston offer a simple formula that will help you approach feedback anew, stripped of inferences that lead to trouble:

Data + Feeling + Impact= Effective Feedback

  1. Data: What actually happened in the boardroom? What is the evidence everyone would agree on?
  2. Feeling: How am I feeling about this? How strongly? Am I willing to be honest about how I feel?  
  3. Impact: What is the impact of her behavior? How do I know this? Am I prepared to be honest about the impact on me? And do I truly know the impact on others without assuming things?

“Regina, I noticed you slammed your fist down. I was personally startled, and I must say that is was hard for me to concentrate on what you were saying after that happened.”³

This is simply the Data + Feeling + Impact formula at work. When done cleanly, it enables us to open a real conversation without assigning meaning, assumptions and beliefs that could clutter the issue and cause defensiveness.  

Combine this formula with a healthy dose of curiosity and open-ended questions and I feel certain your feedback conversation will take you to very meaningful places.  

Oh. And if you are a leader who doesn’t know what your people really expect of you, that’s a good place to start!

In the spirit of reinforcing the feedback formula, I’m going to use it here in a different way.

Data: Jill Chandler at the Ballroom Barn is this Saturday, September 24th. My sister Jill will headline and sing her amazing songs. I’ll be stepping out of my comfort zone by a mile to practice my mambo for Dancing with the Stars (which takes place Oct 22).

Feeling: I feel nervous and excited and VERY eager for you to buy your tickets in advance ($20).

Impact: Your presence will make our event great. Your ticket money will support the important work of Hospice PEI.

Jill Chandler | Fundraiser for Hospice PEI

I can promise one mambo with my partner and that Jill will put on a terrific show… Buy tickets here.


1 – From Simple Habits for Complex Times by Jennifer Garvey Berger and Keith Johnston.
2 – “Ladder of Inference” comes from Harvard organizational psychologist Chris Argyris and was used in Peter Senge’s work.
3 – Example comes from The Extraordinary Coach by John H. Zenger and Kathleen Stinnett. Chapters 12+ provide much greater depth to the feedback conversation.

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