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A tale of two feedback givers

Constructive feedback is often something best given in private but I recently stumbled across a record of some feedback that was given to me in a very public forum. As I recently rewatched this feedback, it struck me that the difference between the feedback received from the two reviewers illustrated some of the positives and negatives of giving feedback.

To set the scene, I was fourteen and had just completed a tap dancing routine on a talent show back in the mid 1980's called Potluck. The judges were Noel Ferrier and Nancye Hayes. Both Noel and Nancye were experienced actors but only Nancye was a dancer. At the end of my routine, they provide me with the following feedback.


Well Nicole, I think you've got a long way to go love. I mean you are a beautiful looking girl. You have lovely legs. I don't know who organized your routine for you but I think you've got to work on your routine a lot more than what you have come up with today.


Yes Nicole, you do look very, very nice. I know it's not easy to tap dance on this sort of floor. It's not the best thing for tap dancing, but you do need much more within each step. I think it's a little bit repetitious. Some of the shuffles were missing. They weren't strong enough. But keep working because I think you look really lovely. But one thing, try and get your hair a little tidier. The hair out when you're turning doesn't look as good as if you've got it perhaps tied back or plaited or something.

While at the time I found both pieces of feedback quite upsetting and just a little embarrassing, it was the feedback from Nancye that was the most useful. And here's the lessons we can take from their different feedback styles.

Build rapport before delivering constructive feedback

Having never interacted with either of the judges before, there was no pre-existing relationship to rely on. Nancy started her feedback with some rapport building - acknowledging the difficulty of tapping on the studio flooring. The sense of understanding this built was helpful in listening to what came next.

In comparison, Noel started the feedback directly with a negative. By starting with "You've got a long way to go", Noel immediately created a risk that I would shut down and not listen. Hearing such a blunt opening statement was definitely a psychological threat - who knew what was coming next.

In a business environment, building rapport is a key part of managing staff. Taking the time to get to know them as individuals will assist in delivering difficult messages more effectively. Also, by remembering to give regular positive feedback, you'll have earned yourself credits which will allow you to deliver the harder feedback without damaging the relationship.

Make the feedback specific

Nancye identified specific behaviours that needed improving. I had clear instructions that I needed more beats in each step and that I needed to make sure I got each shuffle in clearly. I also got some styling advice about how to wear my hair.

Noel on the other hand just said I needed to "work on my routine a lot more" without giving me any indication of what to do with the routine. Nancye's feedback at least identified that repetition was a problem in the routine. I knew that greater variety in steps could help this.

In giving feedback it is important to make sure that you are as specific as possible about what the problem is. If you are giving advice on how to fix the problem, being specific about changes to be made can also be helpful. Having said that, I often recommend a coaching approach to finding the "better" behaviours. Getting the other person to think of their own solutions to how to perform better is likely to get more buy in to the solution and increase the chances of improved behaviours in the future.

Know the difference between substance and style

To this day, I maintain that Nancye's feedback about wearing my hair up was more a matter of style than substance. While I appreciated that she had a lot of stage experience and that in her world, dancers wore their hair up, I didn't agree that this was always necessary. I had seen other professional dancers wearing their hair out. Her statement that hair out "doesn't look as good" was a subjective opinion. Had she delivered it as more objective - audience feedback is that they are distracted by loose hair - the impact would have been stronger.

I see this issue arising often in relation to feedback on writing styles. A manager will change the wording of a letter because it matches their style. Unless they provide a reason for this - this wording matches the firm's style guide - the junior is likely to feel that their words are being changed simply for the sake of it. And they are likely to feel pretty dissatisfied with that!

What examples of well or poorly delivered feedback have you seen?

If you would like to improve the way you or your team deliver workplace feedback, contact us to learn how we can help.

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