Toxic feedback: don't do this! Seriously, don't!

This is an imaginary dialogue:

A: Your work is really bad. You need to work on this weakness!

B: I thought I did a decent job.

A: Don’t be offended. Feedback is a gift.

As a result of this dialogue, A feels superior to B and B thinks A is an (insert favorite expletive). Nothing gets better, not the relationship and not B’s performance. B is in a hopeless situation – B cannot clarify without being accused of “not being able to take constructive feedback” and A is always right. These type of interactions border on the dynamics we see in cults and power dominated language user communities.  They make me deeply uncomfortable.

There is a whole discourse / ideology in leadership development training that provides the basis for such dialogues. The idea is that communication works according to the sender – receiver model. The sender is responsible for “coding” the information to the receiver, the receiver is responsible for “decoding”. Taken to the extreme, this could mean that I could tell you that you are an (insert favorite expletive) and blame you for being offended because, after all, you are reacting to what you made of my statement and not to what my intention was.

I think this provides us with a pretty strong argument for the fact that communication simply does not work this way. We don’t send and receive, code and decode – we co-construct meaning together within a community of language users and its traditions. There is no neutral way of saying that “in my view, you or your work are bad” without inviting a reaction from or evoking a response in the person we are saying this to.

The traditional leadership development curriculum on feedback positions it as an activity that is geared toward helping someone see “blind spots”, behavior that they don’t know they engage in but that others see. It should be descriptive and not evaluative and aim at creating more options for the receiver of the feedback. Delivered in this way and with this intention, feedback can be eye-opening and growth promoting.

Feedback becomes toxic when it is mixed with the idea that the giver of feedback is only responsible for saying what they are perceiving and that the feedback recipient has only one option to respond which is saying “thank you”. I understand the idea: the feedback giver shares their perception, and the feedback receiver should take it as such. The ideal response for the feedback recipient is to neutrally weigh the feedback that they have been given and decide with all freedom what to do with this feedback: ignore it, act on it, ask questions etc.

However, every interaction contributes to our relationship. We continually navigate and co-construct our positions toward one another. Presuming that we can say something evaluative of another person and demand of that person to ignore the effects that it has on the relationship and deny that person the right of clarifying or defending themselves is cruel and toxic.

Before giving someone feedback, we should think about our purpose and our relationship:

Are we really trying to help?

Will the other person be able to see that we are trying to help?

Is the feedback going to open opportunities for the other person?

How is this feedback going to influence our relationship?

Good feedback can strengthen our relationships and our way of co-constructing our lives together. It changes the recipient AND the giver as they navigate how they want to work and live together as connected equals and not as separated senders and receivers.

If you would like to learn more about feedback, we have a Solution Focused workshop series on feedback which we offer for organizations in–house – maybe that’s an option for your organization?

Otherwise, as you know, we are always glad to discuss and experiment in our free meetup and exchange sessions.

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