Successful Feedback Has These Four Steps

Understand and master the process inherent in all successful feedback

James Wright
Nov 29, 2019 · 7 min read
Get each step right before you move to the next — source

why is it when you give feedback you feel it is right; yet when you have received feedback, it is often not how you remembered it or just plain inaccurate.

It takes just four steps for feedback to be a success. Arming yourself with that know-how, is not only essential for you to become really great at giving feedback.

This four step model is a synthesis of recent research and thinking (see Further Reading) aligned to some of my own experience.

The Four Steps

Based on the above, feedback has four steps:

  1. Reception
  2. Recognition
  3. Acceptance
  4. Motivation

You approach these steps as stage gates. Tackle each in order, stop at each until you are confident it has been totally addressed, and cycle back to the top if you realise at any point the process is stuck.


Reception -> Recognition -> Acceptance -> Motivation

The first thing to do with every feedback conversation is ensure someone is psychologically receptive to discussing and respecting what you are saying.

However astute your observation and adept your feedback, they aren’t going to take up and be motivated to act if they aren’t receptive to it!

To get past this first step you need to cover both sides of the coin up-front: their mindset, and your relationship.


Ask yourself, is this person in the right frame-of-mind to receive feedback? Literally, ask: “Hey George, I’d like to talk to you about something where I can see you could improve on, is this a good time for you?”

You may be surprised by the answer. A good time for you doesn’t equally translate for them. There are a million reasons someone has more pressing things on their mind (family, health or other personal issues).

If so, save it for another day. You, and they, have a bigger problem. Your job now is to focus on helping them get into a good state of play.


In a similar vein, it is also vital to ensure the recipient truly understands that your intent is altruistic and you have credibility in their eyes.

“We humans do not do well when someone whose intentions are unclear tells us where we stand, how good we ‘really’ are, and what we must do to fix ourselves” (The Feedback Fallacy)

If you have any inkling about either, go away and fix that first. Feedback will just make things worse.


Reception -> Recognition -> Acceptance -> Motivation

This step is concerned with ensuring the recipient recognises and appreciates what you observed and the impact it had.

Consider for a second: why is it when you give feedback you feel it is right; yet when you have received feedback, it is often not how you remembered it or is plain inaccurate. This gap is a particular point of difficulty in this step and what you have to close.

How do you close that gap?

Photo by Farnoosh Abdollahi on Unsplash

Let’s first ask why that gap exists? Everyone comes to feedback using the same chain of events:

  1. Observe a behaviour
  2. Interpret that behaviour
  3. React to that behaviour (i.e. how you feel)
  4. Respond to that behaviour (i.e. define your needs of them)
  5. You make requests about that behaviour (i.e. deliver feedback to bring about your needs)

This feels right to you as it links your observation to your feedback. However, that chain hides a number of areas where you and the recipient can get misaligned. Let’s look at those now.

Observe + Interpret

If you were asked what you had witnessed, you may say “John was just holding the team up, again”. You think that is what you observed. But the actual observation was John questioning if the team had considered some important risks. ‘Holding the team up’ is not the observation; it’s the label you give to it.

John may want the best for the team as you do, but thinks they should think more about risks upfront. Fair-enough.

My advice is, first ask what their intention was. If you find that they had benevolent intent and clumsy execution, then your role is to show that their intent or purpose is better served by an alternative approach.

If, on the other hand, the intent is in need of work e.g. “I wanted to get back at Jack for all the stuff he has done to me this year”. Then, the focus is switched to confronting the underlying intent.

React & Respond

The best advice I’ve received on feedback is to talk about how you felt as a result of the behaviour. Don’t get grandiose and talk about how it impacts the team, or the organisation. Why? How it made you feel is a more humble claim, but it cannot be refuted or challenged. Someone cannot tell you how you felt.

Framing this message so that it comes only from you, but creates sufficient impact for the receiver is the art of feedback.


Reception -> Recognition -> Acceptance -> Motivation

After the recipient recognises and recalls the events and appreciates the impact, you need to facilitate a conversation that relates that observation to their own self-evaluation (i.e. does it challenge or violate their self-evaluation “I had always thought I was great at public speaking, now I’m not so sure”).

This step is one of empathy, helping another person come to terms with the effect of the feedback, to the point where they take responsibility for it.

Hearing that someone has something critical to say about how you behaved, and that it may have had negative impacts, prompts questions about how you are seen by others. Maybe question if you really do have the respect and trust of your colleagues? And about how you see yourself!

We are social creatures, and feel threatened and can react is predictable but damaging ways to it.

Don’t push through this step. Be patient. Understandably, people may want time to digest and reflect (sometimes days, or weeks even). I see feedback fail to land when people prematurely jump through this step without giving the receiver time to take it in and self-adjust.

Move to Motivation if the receiver:


Reception -> Recognition -> Acceptance -> Motivation

Photo by Fab Lentz on Unsplash

The only stage that you are not leading and driving. Consciously or not, the receiver makes an evaluation of the personal benefit to the change and decides if it is worthwhile to make the effort.

  • Can they live with this feedback?
  • Do they really want to expend the effort to improve, is it worth it?
  • How much effort to put into looking like they are changing and improving?

People can go to great lengths to resist, to downplay, to change the rules, to ignore, to wish it goes away. Anything but making the effort to change the habits of a lifetime.

In my experience, most intractable feedback gets stuck right here. I’ve had people tell me flat out “James, I’m just not going to put in the effort to change.” You have to respect that choice. Where does that leave you and the damaging behaviour? You can then either live with it, mitigate it, or transfer it.

However, it you have generated enough motivation for self-sustaining improvement and they are genuinely improving, for their own benefit, not yours. Well done! You’ve possibly done someone the biggest favour of their professional lives.


You know you have nailed the feedback if they are behaving in a way that is genuine about improving themselves, and it is sustainable enough to be accomplished.

To recap:

  1. Feedback has four steps: Reception -> Recognition -> Acceptance -> Motivation
  2. Be patient and treat each step as a stage-gate
  3. Ensure the receiver is receptive to receiving feedback
  4. That they truly recognise what you describe
  5. Have altered their self-evaluation and accept the feedback
  6. Are motivated to improve their behaviour over any other course of action

I hope this has helped create a reusable model for you that you can keep on using, improving and leading with.

Further Reading

  1. Thanks for the Feedback — triggers to overcome when giving feedback
  2. Truth at Work: The Science of Delivering Tough Messages — four mindsets of recipients
  3. The Feedback Fallacy — focus on positive feedback as a way to promote growth
  4. Radical Candor — ensure you have the right motivation
  5. SBI model of feedback — the classic model of providing feedback
  6. Negative Feedback Rarely Leads To Improvement — research on the challenges inherent with constructive feedback
  7. What Good Feedback Really Looks Like — a response to The Feedback Fallacy
  8. Powerful: Building a Culture of Freedom and Responsibility — introducing a performance culture based on ‘ruthless’ feedback

James is a Software Delivery Manager at SEEK, an online career and recruitment company based in Melbourne, Australia. He has spent a good part of his career leading small cross-functional software development teams. And prior to that was a long-term Software Architect and Engineer in London, Zurich and Melbourne. He has a Master in Computer Science.

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At SEEK we’ve created a community of valued, talented, diverse individuals that really know their stuff. Enjoy our Product & Technical insights…

Thanks to Charles Lidgard and Jenni

 by the author.

James Wright

Written by

James Wright is a Delivery Manager @ SEEK leading cross functional software development teams.

SEEK blog

SEEK blog

At SEEK we’ve created a community of valued, talented, diverse individuals that really know their stuff. Enjoy our Product & Technical insights…

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