Posted on: 09/11/2021

Mentoring and giving feedback: Is your feedback missing the mark?

By Dr Kay Guccione, Head of Researcher Development at the University of Glasgow, and FLF+ Network Mentoring Specialist.

This blog is part of a series written for our FLF+ Network Leadership Mentors, and is provided open access so that it can be used by anyone who is interested in improving their feedback skills. I draw my examples in this post from across the different mentoring programmes I’ve worked on, but you will recognise that these ideas also apply to personal tutoring, doctoral and masters supervision too, as well as to line management.


Is your feedback missing the mark? 

I have been selected as ‘Reviewer of the Year’ by a handful of journals, for giving developmental feedback, and it’s fair to say I’m very proud of this recognition. I am pleased to be recognised in this way, because giving feedback that helps people develop is a core competency of being a good teacher, academic, and mentor. Being a good mentor, and helping others to engage with mentoring techniques, is something I’ve been an advocate for in my professional life.

Disclosure though, I cribbed my feedback skills from a tutor on my Coaching and Mentoring MAEd – the superbly skilled Rose Schofield, a grand dame of feedback. Part of my learning with Rose over the years, as her student, and then as her colleague teaching on the MA Educational Leadership, was to understand what it was about her feedback that motivated people to want to do better. Rose’s feedback to me made me want to listen, think, and to evaluate and improve my work, all without her having to ever point out to me ‘what could be better’. She helped me to see for myself that improvement of my thinking, writing, and career choices was possible. She did this by asking me questions, and by choosing those questions carefully, selecting ones that I myself wanted to know the answer to.

I run regular workshops now, for lots of different institutions and businesses that support staff to add mentoring and coaching techniques to their teaching, management, supervision and leadership repertoires. One discussion I always like to let run, and to help people explore, is how to give feedback that the recipients will actually hear, analyse, and respond to.

How to give feedback that the recipients will actually hear, analyse, and respond to

Giving feedback that acknowledges areas for improvement, and that doesn’t cause the receiver to feel ashamed, close down, clam up, be upset, get defensive or start an argument, is difficult. This is because effective feedback is dependent on more than the structure or mechanism you apply — the relationship between giver and receiver really matters. Additionally, their relationship to the work, career, behaviour or decision you are critiquing, will impact on how the feedback is heard and processed.

There is widespread usage now of a formulaic ‘sandwich’ approach to giving balanced feedback (Whitman & Schwenk, 1974) that goes: ‘good bit, critical bit, good bit’. This formula for feedback isn’t as effective as we are led to believe and there are a number of criticisms of it available in the literature. At the time of publishing, it did a great service to medical education, but has become outdated for use today.

The sandwich method has lost effectiveness because the recipient (a) knows what you’re doing, and so (b) dismisses the positive bits and still feels defensive about the negative bits. This is because using a formula can seem generic, disingenuous, or inauthentic, and we all know of the temptation to write the criticism first and then add in positive ‘filler’ to cushion the blow.

This method can also be dismissed, and even provoke anger, in cases where the critical part is so out of line with how the recipient sees themself, that they feel there must be some mistake. Haven’t we all received feedback that jars with our self-image and thought, ‘You clearly don’t even know me or my work!’

So, if it’s not ‘balance’ that makes feedback effective – what is it?

Below are some concepts related to the giving of feedback for you to think about. This isn’t a ‘how to’ model because there’s not one right way that works every time. Not all ideas will be relevant to every situation, or every person. All that’s required of you, is for you to think about these ideas, think about your feedback, and notice where these suggestions could or wouldn’t work for you.

Consider as you read each idea below, that as mentors we intend to stay with the idea of ‘person centred development’. The key to giving feedback that supports thinking, learning, and motivates action, is to make the feedback about the recipient. Not generic, and not about ourselves.

To deliver this personalised feedback in a way that does not provide too big a challenge to the recipient’s own view of themselves we must:

Understand that relationship, rapport and alliance matters.  Most of us are more inclined to hear a difficult truth from a trusted colleague, one whom we feel has got to know us and who has got our back, than we are to hear it from someone we already feel tense around, or whose opinion we don’t particularly value.

Play the ‘long game’ of feedback. Does it matter more to ‘be right, right now’ or is it more important to build a productive partnership that will weather difficulties, and where honest conversations can happen? Ask yourself: do you really need to pick them up on that typo? Must you leap in and correct them? Are you helping them to learn or are you ‘showing what you know’? Are they doing things wrong, or are they doing it in a different way to how you would?

Ask don’t tell.  Before giving your opinion, why not ask your mentee or colleague how things went/how things are going, and what they think? For example, “Well done on getting [X] done/drafted, how did it go? Are you happy with it? Did you find it straightforward? Was there anything more taxing/complicated you had to deal with? Is there anything further you’d like to improve about it? Do you have any questions about it?”

Let go of values-based judgements. If a colleague or mentee’s work contains typos or mistakes, or is otherwise not up to your own standard, it’s not very likely that mistakes were made in order to directly offend you, or as a mark of disrespect. Consider whether you were clear about the standards you expect? If you’re feeling angry, what are you really angry about? What does the anger relate to? Who are you angry with? How are your anger levels generally? It may be that this perceived slight, or lack of care, is a further irritant in a relationship that’s already not working well. Address the cause, not the symptom.

Reject passive aggressive responses, for example ‘hinting’.  Good feedback is built on open and honest conversations. Say what you mean and mean what you say – take a look at this article on how to spot passive aggressive behaviour. If you need to practice getting out of passive aggressive habits, and communicate more honestly, imagine your response will be publicly available – does that change how you will reply?

Be culturally aware.  Here’s an article helping you think through your communication habits if you are working with people from different organisational and educational cultures, and diverse nationalities. The ‘British culture translation’ guide might make you smile. It has an application broader than EU translation and works both ways too.

Check the power privilege.  What might seem flippant, harmless or even funny between peers who know each other well, may come across as threatening to people who we are leading, managing or mentoring. This can be exacerbated if they are new to the task or workplace, are feeling a bit overwhelmed with workload, are on a steep learning curve, or are otherwise a feeling insecure about the work or performance they are getting feedback on.

Know what workplace bullying looks like. Keep an eye on yourself and others around you. Although I know I don’t need to preach to readers of this post about not using bullying as a feedback technique, there are those who feel they can get away with writing off their bullying behaviour as ‘just normal critical appraisal’. Check these guides to find out what bullying at work looks like - have you seen any of these? – I have definitely seen most of them in my time working in and with different universities. Rudeness and undermining behaviour isn’t just unpleasant in itself, it reduces motivation, engagement with and ownership of work, physical and mental health (see this study on workplace rudeness), and ultimately leads to isolation, low productivity, and delay.

Be specific about what you want to see. Have a little laugh at this comedic example of poor feedback. And if you find you’re giving feedback like this, why not just do it better? Define what ‘good’ looks like through your feedback, for example on the elements and style of scholarly writing.

Criticise with kindness.“Let your aim be to come at truth, not to conquer your opponent. So you never shall be at a loss in losing the argument, and gaining a new discovery.” – Arthur Martine.  Follow rules 1, 2, and 3 of intelligent critical commentary before offering your rebuttal. It transforms your opponent into a more receptive audience for your feedback, which in turn helps advance the discussion.

Use higher logical forms of disagreement. If you want to disagree, no problem. Just keep it about the subject of the disagreement, and keep away from the base of this hierarchy. Don’t troll your colleagues.

Try using ‘AND’ instead of ‘BUT’. You can easily negate good will by adding a ‘but’ after a positive statement. Try using ‘and’ instead. “You’re doing a great job already, and if you tried out one or two of these ideas, you could really become a connoisseur of feedback”. Remember that saying ‘however’ is just a fancy way of saying ‘but’. And saying ‘on the other hand’ is just a metaphorical way of saying ‘but’.

Try using ‘WHAT’ instead of ‘WHY’. Asking ‘why’ can (a) provoke defensiveness and make people feel the need to justify themselves with long winded accounts of everything they have on their plate right now, for example “Why didn’t you manage to get that done?” and (b) asking ‘why’ can send people spiralling backwards into the history of similar times they were stuck or frustrated and encourage self-blame. To keep ears open and minds solution-focused, it’s better to ask, “What prevented you from getting that done?” Because if we can define the ‘what’, we can plan around the ‘what’, and solve the problem.

Not shirk the difficult conversation. Sometimes we all have to speak an honest truth about someone’s habits, style or behaviour at work, and the impact it has on us. Things don’t get better on their own. Whatever difficult thing you have to say to your colleague(s), planning your conversation will help you clarify and articulate your thoughts and your approach. Download a difficult conversation planning tool I made here

As always, if these ideas are useful, then please use them, adapt them and share them as you wish. If they are not useful, no worries. Remember that you don’t have to do all of the above, choose the right things for you. If you do try out some of these ideas, your feedback is always welcome.

Share this post: