Feedback — the fear and the need

Steven Limmer
6 min readFeb 6, 2016

Feedback is something that has intrigued me for a long time. I’m one of those people who recoil from praise, much preferring to be told where I’m going wrong and what I need to do to improve. However, I assumed this was the exception rather than norm, and anecdotal evidence backs up my assumptions; there seems to be an unhealthy fear of feedback in general. I work for @KainosSoftware, and as a company, we are growing, and have a healthy culture of developing our people. I firmly believe that regular, timely feedback is a key to growth, to maturity, to mastery. But why do so many people shy away from either giving or receiving feedback?

Neuroscience & studies

Last summer, I attended Agile on the Beach with a number of my colleagues. It’s a fantastic conference, and I would thoroughly recommend it. The second day’s keynote speaker, @jennijepsen, was a particular standout; she discussed the brain (03:44–06:08) and revealed that scientists found that the phrase “Can I give you some feedback” elicited the same fear in humans as seeing a wild bear in the woods.

However, recently the Harvard Business Review published a similar study into feedback and discovered that fear was subjective. They polled 899 respondents worldwide, and discussed positive feedback, negative feedback, and the impact it had on career. There were some interesting trends.

In general, the same amount of people preferred to give positive feedback as not give it.

A larger amount of respondents preferred to avoid giving negative feedback as give it.

A larger amount of respondents preferred to receive positive feedback as not receive it.

The standout find was that the largest group of people polled preferred to receive negative feedback as not receive it, and that 72% of the people polled believed negative feedback could be beneficial for their career.

That really piqued my interest, so I set about conducting my own informal internal study to see if the same hypothesis could be drawn from my colleagues:

  • 55% of respondents felt their performance would’ve improved if they had been given more feedback
  • 73% of respondents felt they got more positive than negative feedback
  • 87% of respondents agreed that negative feedback if given appropriately, would improve performance

87%!! Overwhelming evidence supporting the desire for constructive, redirecting feedback, backing up the original study and then some. In general, people clearly want feedback that helps them grow. So how do you go about giving feedback in a way that isn’t detrimental?

Feedback models

I’ve been on a number of coaching and development courses over the years, and have picked up some really good tools to use when giving feedback. I’ll discuss the 3 that have been the most useful for me.

When giving positive feedback, use the BET model. It’s a simple model that identifies cause, effect, and gives an opportunity for thanks.

Behaviour. What has the person done that has been good, has improved things for themselves or others.

Effect. What effect this has had on that person, their team, the people around them.

Thanks. Give the person heartfelt praise for their efforts.


When giving corrective, redirecting feedback, use the BEER model. This is an excellent model for identifying negativity and turning it around into personal improvement.

Behaviour. Identify where a person needs to improve, “Hey, I’ve noticed recently that during standup, you roll your eyes and sigh a lot when some people are giving their status”.

Effect. Identify the effect this is having, “the other guys have noticed it, and it’s having a negative effect on the team as it’s disrespectful and rude.”

Expectation. Explain what you expect the person to do (or not do) to bring about change, “I would expect that all members of this team have respect for each other’s opinions, and if you disagree with someone, I would advise you to talk to them about it in a mature manner.”

Result. Highlight what will happen if the behaviour changes for the better, and explain consequences if there are no improvements. “I feel that if you guys can work together, it will improve morale in the team, and performance will increase as a result. But if it continues, we’ll have to consider moving you to some other part of the business, as you clearly can’t gel with the other guys, and there can’t be disruption in the team.”

When giving constructive feedback, use the AID model. It’s a general model, and has scope to be used on many occasions.

Action — the action that has caused the event to give feedback. This can be positive or negative.

Impact — the impact the action is having on the person, the people around them, and the wider considerations.

Desired Result — the end state; what “good” will look like after the feedback has been given.

It’s good to have models to frame the way you give feedback, but there are other factors that have to be considered when giving feedback, and there’s another model which can help, BOOST.

Balanced. When providing feedback, try and temper the message. If you have to give corrective feedback, try and balance it with something positive. “You do this really well, however this area of your skillset really needs improvement.”

Observed. When giving feedback, give it from your perspective, “I have seen…”, “I’ve noticed…”. It avoids ambiguity and hearsay, and makes the feedback a one-to-one conversation.

Owned. The actions and outcomes of the feedback need to be owned by the person you are giving the feedback to. You pass the ownership on to that person, the improvements lie with them.

Specific. This is important; don’t provide opinions, base information on fact; “I’ve observed you do this on a number of occasions”. Particularly when giving negative feedback, this allows you to give a measured statement to a person and reduces the argument factor considerably.

Timely and two-way. There may never be a good time to give certain people feedback, however, check in with the person first to set a time to have a discussion. If you appear on an adhoc basis with the question “hey, can I give you some feedback?”, they’ll likely shut down and go on the defence (see above video). Have some consideration for their feelings.

The two-way part is important too. As a leader, you want to ensure that the message you’re giving to the person is received, so get them to relay back what you’ve said. This ensures there’s a common understanding. Open yourself up for feedback & questions too. They may have an observation to make about you, and this is a perfect forum for them to voice it.

To summarise, quoting from the HBR study, people believe constructive criticism is essential to their career development. They want it from their leaders. But their leaders often don’t feel comfortable offering it up. From this we conclude that the ability to give corrective feedback constructively is one of the critical keys to leadership, an essential skill to boost your team’s performance that could set you apart. And hopefully, I’ve provided some tools that can help you have those crucial conversations that can help people grow.



Steven Limmer

Agile Leader, husband, dad, fitness nut. Founder of #LeanCoffeeBelfast, co-founder of @PCampBelfast.