Feedback: The Best ‘Gift’ A Leader Can Give


Graham Williams

Feedback is received and given in many forms in all situations. In the workplace it may be formal (for example annual appraisals, customer surveys, coaching interventions, recognition and reward as a built-in aspect of incentive schemes). Or it may be informal (for example, a spontaneous, negative reaction to an avoidable mistake; a nod or word of understanding during a conversation).

Feedback may be positive or negative. A choice that we make when giving feedback.

“As selfishness and complaint pervert the mind, so love with its joy clears and sharpens the vision” – Helen Keller

We believe that feedback should be viewed as a gift as they inform our mind-set, response and assessment of its value when we receive feedback and our attitude, manner, content and intent – when we give feedback.

Mulla Nasruddin went to a Turkish bath. As he was poorly dressed the attendant gave him only a scrap of soap and an threadbare towel. When he left, Nasruddin gave the man a gold coin.

The following week Nasruddin appeared again. This time, of course, he was looked after like a king. After being massaged, perfumed and treated with the utmost deference, he left the bath, handing the attendant a copper coin.

“I do not understand,” said the attendant.

“This,” said Nasruddin, “is for last time. The gold coins were for this week”.

Some examples of helpful feedback are:

  • A pat on the back (if culturally acceptable)
  • Using a video recording of a person’s presentation to point out areas of excellence and areas needing improvement
  • Speaking out when a group is gossiping about a colleague or engaged in naming and blaming (and not opting out and staying uninvolved) is a way of providing feedback to a group that they are out of line
  • Smiling. “Every time you smile at someone it is an action of love, a gift to that person, a beautiful thing”. (Mother Teresa)
  • feedforward
  • Leaving a handwritten note on someone’s desk when they’ve done a good job

Feedback lets people know where they stand in terms of both task (performance against expectation) and relationship (degree of acceptance and positive, non-judgmental regard).

In organisations, the extent to which appropriate, helpful feedback is the norm is a strong indication of a prosocial culture of acceptance, honesty, respect, teamwork and empowerment.

A well-known coach, Marshall Goldsmith, promotes the concept of “feedforward”. Instead of focusing on what has happened as in feedback, it looks forward and emphasises the future.

Instead of pointing out/ telling what has been done wrong or is below expectation, “feedforward” concentrates on asking for solutions, suggestions, and on teaching, encouragement. A practice of positive, uplifting feedback. (Goldsmith, M. 2022)


Criticism is also a form of feedback. How we give criticism is often an outcome of how we perceive received criticism.

We need not waste time on hurtful, unreasonable, ‘false criticism’ – but discard this as quickly as we can. As American satirist, journalist Henry Louis (‘HL’) Mencken advises: “I am sitting here in the smallest room of my house, with your letter of criticism before me. It will soon be behind me”. 

But sometimes criticism is valid and relevant.

A hard skill for many to learn is how to cope rationally and emotionally with criticism – especially if our level of self-esteem is already too low. If we don’t think highly enough of ourselves (‘I’m a bad father… mother…  boss… sales-person… friend-when-needed…”)  then we more readily accept criticism from others when it touches on those areas of limiting belief, thus reinforcing our poor esteem.

And critical feedback comes in many forms, often taking us by surprise.

Sometimes we are our own worst enemies, effectively criticising ourselves after comparing ourselves unfavourably with the possessions, power, positions, performance of those we are in day-to-day contact with, at work, socially, at home and at play (Top right-hand quadrant).

In addition to how accurate, true and serious a criticism might be, how it is delivered and how it is received determines how we handle it.

So those with wounded spirits, fragile egos, low self – esteem and a tendency to castigate themselves may crumble easily and quickly when criticised. Those who are neurotic will always blame themselves, apologise profusely (even when this is not warranted). Those with a leaning towards a character disorder will seek to blame everything but themselves, and may go into immediate denial mode and argue vehemently. 

On the other hand, those with higher self-esteem, if they determine that the criticism is valid and relevant (after listening to the other and separating fact from feeling and opinion – which implies not arguing or being defensive), will learn from what does apply, and move on (making an adaption or apologising if necessary). If the criticism is delivered in the wrong way (aggressively, couched in other terms, in public …) they will also handle this, for example by saying “I don’t like the way you did this”, “I am not John – so your comparison doesn’t make sense and is not helpful”, ““Next time make it a private discussion please”.

Subtle criticism is especially difficult to pick up unless we are very aware and very tuned in to what is being said (including between-the-lines).  Or not said. A friend has a boss who has never once offered a word of praise in over 10 years.

When receiving criticism, we do well to be aware of what is being said and how it is said; to understand the other’s motive; to rationally assess the correctness of the criticism; and then to respond calmly and assertively.

When giving criticism to others the rules are to make sure that the criticism is correct (think and assess well before speaking); is direct and constructive; and that you are sensitive to your impact on others.

Criticise the behaviour, not the person.  This becomes role-modelling behaviour for others to follow.

The Johari Window (based on constructive giving and receiving, asking and telling), can be a useful tool for fostering personal and group growth via constructive feedback.

The JoHari Window

To reach out and reveal something of yourself to the outside world – showing an inner state, exposing a vulnerability – is a brave thing to do.  And conversely, receiving and being trusted with new information about the other, is a responsibility. But “several studies demonstrate that emotional disclosure can produce significantly enhanced health functioning”. (Tugade, M. et al 2004)

The Johari Window (designed by psychologists Joseph Luft and Harry Ingham)  is a model of giving and receiving feedback and disclosure in order to open the window to our understanding of self and others. It’s about Asking and Telling. Sharing stories. Learning about how others see us. How we think, feel and behave in different circumstances and situations, and to different challenges and people. (Luft, J. 1984)

In group or individual conversations, what is known to self / unknown to others may result in telling or expressing what others may not know and should know – your frustrations, fears, disenchantments…

What is unknown to self / known to others becomes a learning and growth opportunity. (If the other person points out a flaw, something that you’re blind to, that might be a bit upsetting, then this feedback can trigger a valuable insight. With that insight you add to what is now known to self, have something to work with (an improvement to make or a strength to make use of), and most likely feel an empathic connection with the other person.

Unknown to self / unknown to other is the area of possible joint discovery as what was hidden becomes revealed to both.

Moving from the individual to group level: I was once part of a process of bridging silos between departments in a large organisation. They shared (gave feedback) how they saw and felt about themselves and the other department, then compared this to what the other group saw and felt. Hidden stereotyping, prejudice and unhelpful bias quickly emerged, as did common ground.

So, for example, the Finance Department saw their Sales colleagues to be favoured through commission earnings, expensive outings with clients, arrogant, unaware of the financial implications of their actions – offering extended credit, not collecting cheques in time for month-end… And Sales staff saw their Finance colleagues as being bureaucratic and pedantic, not seeing the bigger picture – irritating important clients by incorrect processing of discount, not allowing any leeway when it came to collecting outstanding monies!

In a very short space of time both sets of employees came to understand the hidden downsides of belonging to the other department (travel and time away from families or not being recognised) and see that they were on the same side, were committed to doing their best for themselves, the organisation and their families, and needed the other.

Get to use the Johari window at work, at home, for individual and group development – gratefully and wisely.

Every act of feedback can be a powerful act of love

Dominique Lapierre relates an incident when he offered a contribution to Mother Theresa’s work:

“Mother, I know that what we have brought is only a drop in the ocean of need”

Her reply was: ’But if that drop were not in the ocean, the ocean would miss it. And it is God who has sent you’, she interrupted me with amused gentleness”.

How would you handle these feedback situations at work? What do you do and speak?

  1. You are a team leader. You witness a peer blaming and correcting a member of her team in public. The person at fault is clearly embarrassed, even humiliated.
  • You spend many hours of your own time preparing for an event for members of your department, arranging the catering, organising invitations and seating arrangements, ensuring that all the needed technical aspects for presentations and speeches are ready … Something goes wrong at the event which is not your fault. Your boss makes a snide remark, “I can’t trust you to get anything right!”
  • After carefully preparing a subordinate’s appraisal and conducting the appraisal, he says to you “This is so unfair! I’m struggling to meet my family’s needs and just because I’m not one of your favourites, I shouldn’t get such a low rating”.
  • Your boss gives a poor presentation, after which she asks you for your feedback. (The content of the presentation was not good, nor was it well delivered. It was boring rather than informative and not at all inspiring).   
  • In talking about feedback and how it is working in your organisation, someone says, “You know, what I’ve learned about handling criticism, giving and receiving feedback, and by applying the Johari Window is that these things come together to teach me how to walk in another person’s shoes”. How would you reply, and why?


  • Goldsmith, Marshall (2022) The Notion of Feedforward
  • Lapierre, Dominique (1999) A Thousand Suns Simon and Schuster UK
  • Luft, Joseph (1984) Group Processes: an introduction to group dynamics (3rd edition) Mayfield
    Publishing Company
  • Tugade, Michele, M., Fredrickson, Barbara L. and Feldman Barrett, Lisa. (2004)  Psychological Resilience and Positive Emotional Granularity: Examining the Benefits of Positive Emotions on Coping and Health PMC US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health  December, 2004

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