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Feedback – A Risky business!

Feedback - A risky business?Thanks for choosing to take a Breath of Fresh Air! In a hectic day, I find setting time aside to ‘have a think’ re-energises me, clears my mind and sets me up for the next task. I hope I can do the same for you.

This blog started in a pub. Well there’s a good place to start you may be thinking. Hubby and I were sitting, relaxing and chatting, when my eyes were drawn to the ‘Specials’ board. Not unusual except for the fact I used to be a French teacher many years ago. Yes – whoever had chalked up the French dish had placed an accent (or should I say squiggle) in the wrong place. Now, understandably, for me that’s a challenging scenario. As an ex French and English teacher, and currently corporate trainer and coach, to be confronted with this caused me to ponder. I looked away, back again and looked away again. A little voice inside me took me through my options:

  • Sneak up and change it while they are in the other bar? Cheeky and dishonest and hardly assertive…
  • Say nothing (are you sitting there remembering foreign holiday menus with creative English translations?)
  • Tell them and do my best to be nonchalant?


Before I knew it, my mind began to have a field day. What about those apostrophes on the end on simple plurals for example ‘Sandwich’s sold here’ or even ‘Sandwichs’ sold here.’ (Flick where are you? – she is our guru on the use of correct grammar for professional business people, and a self confessed grammar ninja who would most definitely have ensured the correction was made.) My pet peeve – and hers – is that some people even pay for incorrect cowboy grammar on the side of their vans or shop fronts.

Yet this is fairly safe stuff as far as feedback goes. A bit like labels sticking out of the collars of clothes I suppose.

Of course as professional business people some of us are obliged to give often very difficult feedback where emotional issues are concerned. You’re probably thinking of your own examples already. Certainly, I imagine some will include highly sensitive issues around personal hygiene and poor performance.  I remember when I was a young lecturer we had a very small team of six in our department. To my shame I had been party to the strategy of combating our Head of Department’s offensive body odour with a strategically placed, under his desk air freshener tablet. You see we had a morning-long weekly Department meeting.

We now venture into more challenging waters a long way from the safety of misplaced apostrophes and accents, and into the realms of people’s feelings.

Have you ever found yourself beginning a conversation with someone who had (and I use a term my grandchildren charmingly refer to as a ‘goblin’) peeping out on the end of their nostril? I’m taking a risk in telling you this and I feel I can. Have you ever tried to concentrate on what that unfortunate person was saying whilst all the time being hopelessly preoccupied with what you could see? This is inevitable when you’re only 5’ 1” high! Well, this happened to me at a police training centre quite a few years ago now where a senior manager and I were chatting during a break in a series of management development programmes I was delivering. What would you have done? Those who know me will not be surprised at what I did.

It’s funny isn’t it what our unconscious mind does in situations like this. My late father used to tell me stories about his life, some real and some lovingly made up to help me over the inevitable challenges as I grew up. A real story he told me, a bit dated now perhaps, was about his mum coming home with a hat she’d bought at a local jumble sale. She was thrilled with her bargain purchase and had no idea how ridiculous she looked. She twirled for this young sixteen year old lad to agree with her.  My father was torn between supporting her in her excitement and in his love for her and being honest. He chose the latter. He told her the truth because he loved her and didn’t want others to make fun of her.

So, bearing this in mind and with my late father’s story being my silent guide, I took a tissue swiftly from my pocket and said very matter of factly, “Can I just do a Mumsy. You’ve still got soap on your face. There – just rubbed it off. Now as you were saying so what did happen to that young constable then?…….” Risk? Of course it was. Imagine however when that chap went to the loo and looked into the mirror and saw that offending thing on the end of his nose, how he would inevitably feel? Absolutely ‘mortified.’ Wouldn’t you feel the same if it were you? How long has ‘that’ been there? Who have I talked with and on and on. Dreadful, I’m sure you’ll agree.  I took the risk because the future consequences cut across my value system and were unacceptable to me.

Over the years I’ve received feedback; I’ve given feedback, and not had feedback when I would have appreciated it. I remember many years ago I received anonymous feedback on a notorious ‘Happy Sheet’ as we called them, when I was a lecturer training teachers. It read “excellent pace – for a four year old!” and this from a professional teacher in training. The validity was not the issue. (Obviously had the wrong lecturer!) It was the anonymity that made further investigation of the reasons behind the comment impossible. Yes, I did do my best to match their handwriting to the attendance register but to no avail. My therapy sessions have now concluded, if you’re wondering! On a serious note this feedback process is hugely important in terms of building or destroying someone’s confidence.

I said I’d be honest with you and so I’m asking you, why didn’t a group of six men tell me I’d caught the end of my skirt in my tights? One did but only at break after the first part of the day. Was it embarrassment or what? Fortunately, I have a decent pair of legs, but that’s not the point! I did laugh with them.

As business people – many of us with staff in our organisations – you may be wondering why I appear so passionate about this feedback business.  For me, one of my must-have criteria for feedback is in our intention. We need to ask ourselves questions that include our reason for giving that feedback and what we would like to happen as a result. We need to keep feedback what I call ‘clean’ from the contamination of ulterior motives of putting that person down and other forms of ill intent.

Feedback needs to be given from a healthy ‘Emotional Bank Account’ or EBA as Stephen Covey calls it, between the parties concerned. In my opinion, a fundamental principle is trust. I would suggest that trust also infers safety. Interesting as I think of Maslow’s hierarchy of motivational needs here. In this context, I suggest to my groups that this includes in my opinion, safety from destructive criticism. Destructive criticism is like taking a large mallet to a keyboard and crashing it down on the keys. The keyboard becomes unproductive!

Those responsible for giving feedback whether informally or formally in organisations (and I include parents here) would be well advised to build ‘Emotional Bank Accounts’ with those with whom they interact. They need to give acknowledgement for what people do as well as who they are. This means feedback for performance as well as qualities, and making many more positive observations than negative. Feedback on someone’s qualities is many times more powerful than feedback on performance alone. Junior schools have prizes for effort. They acknowledge how powerful this can be for motivation. Ask yourself “How does your organisation give feedback? What is the feedback culture?”

In this way, there will always be more than enough ‘Emotional Money’ to cover a ‘Withdrawal’ to respond to an observation on where that person could improve.

So next time someone would benefit from feedback remember:

  • The ‘Specials’ board
  • My Head of Department!
  • To put yourself in their shoes – how would you feel if you weren’t told?
  • To examine your motives – are they ‘clean’?
  • Times when you would have appreciated feedback and didn’t get it!
  • Feedback on the speed of your delivery by giving it as soon as possible after the event
  • And above all –  Remember my father and his mum’s hat!


Thanks for being with me once again and I hope I’ve given you something memorable to ponder! Have a great and ‘thinkingful’ time before we meet again over next month’s Breath of Fresh Air!

Warmest wishes as always,


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Kate delivers in-house training on many aspects of developing Rewarding Relationships in Business at a corporate, SME and individual level and is available for speaking events.  For more details, visit Bespoke Programmes.

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