The Gift That Keeps on Giving: Honest Feedback

I was recently speaking to a large group of school teachers, principals and district level leaders and I asked them the following question: How many of you would like your colleagues to tell you what you want you want to hear rather than what you need to hear? No one raised their hand. Everyone wants to know the truth, even if it is difficult to hear.  But even though we want to hear honest, direct, and effective feedback, we generally don’t look on those occasions with much joy or pleasure.

Many of the clients I work with can come up with several disturbing stories from their pasts where they have given or received negative feedback. These negative experiences embed themselves into our psyche and become a source of anxiety (Folkman 2013). Clients indicated that because they received negative feedback, it interfered with other aspects of their life - to the point where they became withdrawn and depressed. However, most people can also recall an experience where a colleague gave them helpful feedback that contributed to a drastic improvement in their effectiveness leading to higher levels of success. 

Strong employee engagement is closely aligned with the ability to give honest feedback in a helpful way.

Joesph Folkman is the founder of two leadership development firms, Novations and Zenger Folkman. He conducted a recent study of 22,719 leaders showing that those who ranked at the bottom 10% in their ability to give honest feedback to direct reports received engagement scores from their subordinates that averaged 25 percent. It is quite obvious that these employees detested their jobs, their commitment was low and they regularly thought about quitting.  In contrast, those in the top 10% for giving honest feedback had subordinates who ranked at the 77th percentile in engagement. (source:

Giving honest feedback is an amazing gift, but apparently people only experience it as a gift when it is delivered well. Giving honest feedback poorly, will, for most people, be viewed as a punishment—not a gift. After all, feedback should enhance the dignity of the recipient, not strip them of it.

Feedback is a Gift-But it has to be Opened

When I was a new teacher, and my principal arranged a meeting so we could discuss my progress, I assumed that I was going to receive negative or corrective feedback. After discussing this scenario with other clients and colleagues, I discovered that many others assume that when their Boss wants to have a conversation, the feedback they will receive is going to be negative or corrective. If feedback is always associated with a negative assumption then it will cause many people to avoid feedback all together. “Feedback phobia” isn’t limited to people who have had a boss who criticized them. Nor is it limited to people who are generally insecure about their performance. It is widespread.

The advantage of receiving ongoing feedback is useful for a number of reasons. People long for specific information about their performance because feedback empowers us to react.  For example, we have become a society that relies heavily on Global Positioning Systems as opposed to paper maps. Both provide directions about where you want to go. The GPS, however, provides the directions in the context of an accurate assessment of where you currently are.

Teachers and Leaders Who Ask For Feedback Are More Effective

Leaders who ask for feedback are substantially more effective than those who don’t. In a recent study of 51,896 leaders, it was discovered that those who ranked at the bottom 10% in asking for feedback were rated at the 15th percentile in overall effectiveness. On the other hand, leaders who ranked at the top 10% in asking for feedback were rated, on average, at the 86th percentile in effectiveness. It appears that being open and willing to receive feedback from others is an essential skill for effective leadership. But asking for effective feedback is not just limited to leaders. Teachers and students can grow substantially by intentionally seeking feedback as often as possible.

It would seem that the best teachers and leaders ask more people for feedback and they ask for feedback more often. Rather than being fearful of feedback, they are comfortable receiving information about their behavior from their superiors, their colleagues and their subordinates.

The Benefits of Giving Feedback

How skillful are you at giving both positive and negative feedback? What is your attitude about this important aspect of leadership?

The ability to give and receive feedback is one of the most important teacher and leadership skills. To that end, I am sharing a feedback self-assessment resource that can measure your preference and desire for giving and receiving positive and negative feedback. In addition, this resource will assess your overall feelings of self-confidence, as it is a trait that correlates strongly with the desire to give and receive feedback.

You may or may not be surprised by the results of this quiz. What you will gain is reinforcement about the impressions you have about yourself. This impression will often give people the motivation to change, as the quiz is an effective measure of a person’s aptitude and desire, but not necessarily of their performance or capability.

I took the quiz and I invite you to do the same. Click HERE to take the feedback survey. Remember that feedback given in a helpful way is a valuable gift, and it’s always the ideal time of year to be giving.

For additional information on feedback, or anything else about teaching, learning, and leadership, please feel free to contact me at