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April 3, 2024

Katya Davydova

Why feedback gives us the ick—and what to do about it

“It’s time for our annual feedback conversations!”

Imagine hearing this from your HR or People department. You probably groan.

During the hundreds of feedback workshops I led as a corporate trainer, I’d ask participants to rate their association with the word ‘feedback’ on a sliding-thumb scale. Thumbs up if the association was positive. Thumbs down if negative. 

The results, over and over again?

A clear trend of downwards-sloping thumbs. 

Why does feedback—the concept, the act of sharing it, the act of asking for it—give us pause, or worse yet, anxiety? And how do we change that in organizational contexts?

Why Feedback Often Has a Negative Connotation

Have you ever had a manager, coach, or someone in power say, “I have some feedback for you”​​—and what followed was a poorly phrased criticism? 

People have come to associate feedback with what isn’t going well based on these types of negative past experiences. And because criticism can often feel like an ego attack, it can rightfully make people squeamish. More often than not, when delivered improperly, feedback hurts. 

But what happens if we don’t get feedback—even and especially the critical or constructive kind? The kind where it may sting to hear but offers a path forward for growth, productivity, or success (as defined by the individual or team)?

Well, then everyone involved is impacted. 

The individual isn’t made aware of their behaviors and opportunities to show up better; which could lead to questionable or negative effects for the team. If feedback isn’t shared across the board, the organization suffers from unaddressed issues. 

We’ve been taught—and research supports—that feedback matters, and is one of the components of a thriving company. But how do we influence people’s perspectives to create a healthier psychological relationship with giving and asking for constructive feedback?

Why Feedback Matters

Before we share ways to foster a healthier relationship, let’s first examine why organizations should focus on constructive feedback in the first place. 

Multiple studies in organizational development posit that feedback—when done well—has a positive association with employee engagement, motivation, and leadership. 

On the personal front, tools like Mirror360 make it easy for people to gather anonymous feedback to assess where they stand and where they could grow, in and outside of work contexts.  

In short, feedback is a fundamental process in how we show up in organizations, communities, and to ourselves.

Five Ways to Create a Healthy Feedback Dynamic in Organizations 

So far, we hold two truths: first, feedback is necessary; second, feedback often has negative associations.

So how do we create healthier dynamics around feedback in a company?

Below are five ways to try with your team this week:

1. Normalize feedback

Help people associate feedback not just with criticism, but with growth and development. This could look like using the word ‘feedback’ when delivering both constructive and positive comments. For example, if your direct report recently delivered a great presentation, ask them if they’d be open to hearing some feedback on it, and share specifically what they did well. Over time, this can help people mitigate the stress response of their conditioning to receiving feedback. 

Additionally, before you walk the walk (below), talk the talk. Share with your organization why feedback matters and how it can help employees. Name that there is a feedback culture during interviews, at onboarding, and in 1:1s and team meetings. Then, actually follow through (see steps 2-5). 

2. Create behavioral norms and rituals around feedback (including asking for it)

In walking the walk, make feedback a seamless part of organizational systems. For example, your organization might:

  • Habit stack: ask for feedback after every all-hands or team meeting, and give people space and time to share it (during the meeting or right after)
  • Make it easy for people to ask for feedback by sharing prompts that would elicit a response some text
    • Do NOT say, “If you’ve got feedback, let me know!” or “Does anyone have any feedback?” How likely would you give someone feedback if they asked that way?
    • Instead, aim for specificity: “What’s one thing you liked? One thing to improve?”
  • Encourage org-wide Feedback Fridays, for example—a chance to pause at the end of the week and share feedback with at least one person
  • Have your senior management model asking for and actually listening to feedback.
3. Support psychological safety in upward feedback

Of course, we all know (or have been a part of) organizations where feedback might feel dangerous to give. There might be fear or retaliation, an unwanted whistleblower status, or apathy that nothing will be done about it. 

Oftentimes, the missing key ingredient is psychological safety, a concept by Dr. Amy Edmondson regarding “the belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes, and the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.”

While creating psychological safety at work is beyond the scope of this article, one small but mighty consideration is to create an environment where feedback goes upward: to managers, senior leaders, and the C-suite. The goal is for anyone at an organization to be able to share upward feedback, and have it be received and acknowledged. One fast track to this is to encourage senior leaders to actively ask for feedback on their initiatives and performance. 

4. Train people on feedback skills

I once led a feedback workshop with a group of older, very seasoned and knowledgeable C-suite leaders. After the session, one of them remarked, “I had no idea I was giving feedback wrong for my entire career!” Mind blown. 

Chances are, unless we’ve explicitly been taught research-backed ways to give (or not give) feedback, we cobble together our own approach based on what our managers told us or what the latest fad in pop “science” is. (Did you know the feedback sandwich method is just plain wrong?)

It may be a good idea to invest in your employees’ and leaders’ growth by having them go through official feedback skills training. And, no, it doesn’t have to be a dry, boring webinar. Plenty of companies offer playful, hands-on workshops that increase skill practice and retention. 

5. Consider fostering continuous feedback

More companies are opting into continuous feedback over or in addition to the (bi)annual performance review structures. This makes feedback more timely and encourages consistent reflection and growth. Tools like Mirror360 automate the process, prompting employees to understand their performance and standing at regular intervals. 

However, according to a 2023 study, qualitative feedback delivered by a person (like one’s manager) is more effective at enhancing performance, motivation, and engagement—compared to quantitative feedback delivered over the computer (Giamos, D., Doucet, O., & Léger, P. M.). This means that regularly having actual conversations (versus just reading feedback text) really matters. 

Regardless, a steady drip of feedback sure beats the occasional one, and using both people skills and the available technology is a winning combination. 

Key takeaway

While feedback usually has a negative association in many work contexts, it doesn’t have to. Normalizing it, giving and asking for it often, and creating the right environments for feedback can lead to stronger, more engaged individuals and teams. 


Giamos, D., Doucet, O., & Léger, P. M. (2023). Continuous Performance Feedback: Investigating the Effects of Feedback Content and Feedback Sources on Performance, Motivation to Improve Performance and Task Engagement. Journal of Organizational Behavior Management, 1-20.