Attention: Feedback Givers! Don’t Become the 21%

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This week’s tip is about working through the fears that can arise within feedback givers. We are all feedback givers in one way or another, but people managers are often in such a position far more than others.

At work yesterday, someone booked a video call with me titled “Need your feedback on X.” I didn’t quite know what X was, but the 30-minute call was essentially me learning about X, which happened to be a new quarterly operations review framework, and then giving feedback on various parts of it.

In my experience, most of us are completely fine stepping into these type of situations when the feedback is directed to a thing.

It’s when feedback is directed to a person that we struggle. A lot.

In a feedback survey covered at Harvard Business Review, the authors wrote:

“When talking with managers about giving feedback we often hear comments such as, ‘I did not sleep the night before,’ ‘I just wanted to get it over quickly,’ ‘My hands were sweating and I was nervous,’ and ‘They don’t pay me enough to do this job.’ We find that because of this anxiety, some managers resist giving their direct reports any kind of critical feedback at all: when we asked a different group of 7,808 people to conduct a self-assessment, 21% admitted that they avoid giving negative feedback.”

Team – let’s pause there. Not only do many people managers not give positive feedback (which is vital), but a whopping 21% completely avoid giving negative feedback (also vital).

Abstract art shows workers covering their eyes as a sign behind them reads "Negative Feedback Meeting."

And when you consider that many of these people managers are likely high-performing professionals who have had to navigate countless other elements of the corporate environment to be elevated to a leadership role, it shows just how challenging giving negative feedback can be.

And yet nobody is really talking about it. I mean really. How often has someone at work pulled you aside to say, “Hey, we’ve got quarterly performance reviews coming up and I’m completely terrified to give feedback to my teammates.” Rare! It likely only surfaced in this Harvard Business Review article because those asking the questions were leadership development consultants outside of the company.

So, since we know negative feedback is absolutely critical for personal and professional growth, how can we swim in the waters of the other group, the 79%?

This all easier said than done, but here’s the 2-step approach as I see it.

  1. You need to practice feedback. You can’t just read about it. You can’t just download some slick “Feedback Cheat Sheet” that went viral on LinkedIn and call it a day. You actually have to enter into a relationship with feedback, and do so from the angles in my feedback literacy diagram here:
Feedback Literacy venn diagram that shows Intrapersonal, Interpersonal, and Experiential with Feedback Literacy in the center. Intrapersonal: The skills within our own mind, including those involving self-awareness, open-mindedness, and emotional intelligence, serve as the foundation for giving, receiving, and processing feedback. Interpersonal: Relational skills, including those comprising verbal and nonverbal communication, enable practices like active listening that are critical for developing feedback literacy. Experiential: Feedback experiences across our personal and professional lives. Tip: Gain experience by proactively asking for feedback. Feedback Literacy: Our capacity to effectively give, receive, and process feedback.

  1. You need to empower your team to do the same. Part of the reason there’s a 21% is because feedback givers are scared of how feedback receivers will respond. But if, on an ongoing basis and well before needing to give any negative feedback, you’ve been talking about the importance of feedback and generally building a feedback literate team culture, your life will be so much easier. You’ll have a shared sense of what feedback is and you’ll have a better sense of how the feedback receivers may respond.

This approach involves receiving some feedback training. You can compile resources and do this yourself, or you can bring someone in, but either way you need to get into the feedback gym and, with the right form and ideally with excellent guidance, put the reps in.


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