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The complex world of feedback

Probably most of you are familiar with the Cynefin model. As humanity, we are shifting towards more and more complex problems, because of globalization, expectations, and the amount of data is flooding us. Boom!

A group of intelligent IT people said: “We have a solution!” and agile methodologies were born. They are meant to address complex problems. A common feature of all agile methods is working in an effective team. What does this mean?

A Google study – Project Aristotle – showed that (in simple terms) it means a team that works in a safe environment – that is, one where you can admit to a mistake or lack of knowledge without negative consequences. However, people often do not realize that they have made such mistakes. You must know that you are making mistakes to learn from mistakes.  And here, on a white horse, comes feedback. An unnatural tool that says it’s worth “admonishing” other adults.

I would like to give you an easy explanation of what feedback is used for. There are 2 types of feedback: positive and constructive (also called negative, but I don’t like that phrase). Positive is the one that shows the other person what the giver thinks success means. In comparison, a constructive one shows what needs to be improved to achieve success. Simple, right?

But working with a person is not complex… It’s pure chaos! Complexity is when there is space for experiment, analysis and improvement. You must work in the here and now with a person, and their behavior is highly unpredictable. Are we doomed to failure? A little yes 😊 But we can always minimize the losses. I’ll introduce you to a few tools that will save you some time and money if used at the right time.


1. Match feedback to skills and engagement

Let’s assume we have 2 dimensions to match the feedback. On one axis is engagement, on the other is skill. Feedback is more likely to be given to a highly engaged person with low skills than to an equally engaged person with high skills.

We will provide just as much feedback to the person who has the skill but is not engaged as the person on the other end of the scale. Feedback is a brilliant motivational tool. It is very closely related to the delegation model.

2. When feedback is not getting through

In the previous point, I deliberately omitted the situation when there is a lack of skills and commitment. Then we have the most difficult decision to make – how much feedback to give before giving the final feedback – “we have to part ways”.

First, let’s make sure that the feedback goes where the giver intends. How many situations have I seen where the giver claims to have given his feedback and the receiver does not even know that he has received it.

We dress up the feedback in sick “Sandwiches”, intersperse it with praise, try not to hurt anyone and with all this we achieve total nothing, because the person receiving it is convinced that they are doing a great job and there is only a tiny thing that could potentially be improved. If you want to be sure that the feedback has reached its destination, you should verify 2 things:

  • Did the recipient refer to (understand) the feedback?
  • Have you agreed on an improvement plan together?


This way, you can be sure that the feedback has reached the person receiving the feedback.

It is even worse to assume that feedback thrown into the ether will ever arrive. If you say in a meeting: “I’m not entirely happy with the result of the work on task X” you can be sure that not only will no one take it on board as you expect (Bystander effect) and that the people who tried their hardest to get the project done will be frustrated because they won’t know what it’s really about.


3. Feedback does not lead to improvement

Do you know the situation when the feedback you give loses its value? “Hey, you’re late for a meeting.” “Yeah, I know, sorry”, “Hey, you’re late for your meeting.” “Yeah, I know, sorry”, “Hey, you’re late for the meeting.” “Yeah, I know, sorry” … and on and on?

People learn quickly how to play others. If you don’t emphasize the importance of feedback, it can be ignored. So how do you change that?

“Hey, you’re late for a meeting.” “Yeah, I know, sorry.” “I know you know, and I know you’re sorry, but that doesn’t solve our problem. What will you do to make sure it doesn’t happen again?”

And this is where it gets serious. The machinery of overthinking kicks in. The receiver gets back on track to improve his behavior. Pulling out an improvement plan will always underscore the seriousness of the situation.


4. Final Feedback – Dismissal

Have you ever fired someone before? Did it seem to you that it was too late? It happened to me a couple of times, and I always thought that everyone would have been better off if I had done it earlier.

Feedback was not respected, words were not kept, goals were not met. People were frustrated, clients were dissatisfied, and everyone’s energy was drained. Quite a lot of damage for one person, right? Remember that if ‘amicable’ feedback doesn’t work every time, we should leave the chosen track.

But I don’t want to be misunderstood – the decision to terminate someone must be preceded by an attempt to repair. Firing cannot substitute for poor leadership that is trying to get rid of a problem it cannot handle.

However, if we are conscious leaders and have tried all the solutions, firing a person is very candid and hard-hitting feedback.


5. With care

This is a general principle of good feedback, rather than a tool used in a specific situation. Still, I would like it to be on this list. If you want a good relationship, make sure that the feedback is always given out of concern for the person receiving it.

This way, we will make sure that it is not emotionally charged, and even if we offer it badly, we will not do any terrible damage to the recipient’s relationship, engagement, or motivation.

You have certainly heard that feedback is a gift. I disagree with that.

The feedback that is thoughtful, prepared, factual, and given with care is a gift. 

Keep this in mind when preparing your following feedbacks.

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