Three most common mistakes we make when giving feedback – and how to get rid of them

by | 05.04.2023

Giving and receiving feedback is something we can’t avoid at workplaces which is exactly why we wanted to do a new course on that topic for teams. Here are three common pitfalls most of us do when trying to give effective feedback we learned from our new course Feedback for self-organizing teams

  • hamburgers,
  • generalizations
  • back-channeling.

Let’s dig deeper!

Hamburgers try to end the conversation

Hands up – Who has been taught to give feedback in the hamburger format? To start with something positive, include the criticism in the middle, and then end with something positive. This leaves the other person with a nice feeling and makes it easier to swallow the criticism. Or does it?

Unfortunately, according to our feedback expert Elisa Heikura, that’s not what happens. On the contrary, we’ve learned to expect the criticism lurking in the middle. So when somebody gives us praise, we become suspicious and start to wait for the “but.” “Okay, yes, yes, nice words, but where’s the criticism?”

With the hamburger approach, the often well-intended, honest praise is ignored. First, the receiver doesn’t really pay attention to the praise because they’re looking for criticism. After the criticism is given, they don’t pay attention to the praise because they’re analyzing the criticism. So all the genuine positive feedback the giver wants to give goes to waste.

Have you ever made up the positive feedback to hide your critique inside of the hamburger? According to Heikura, that’s even worse. No matter the good intentions, it makes you seem insincere and deceptive. Made-up praise weakens the collegial relationship, and it doesn’t make it easier for the receiver to accept the criticism.

Another negative outcome of hamburgers is that the person receiving the feedback only hears the positives and ignores the negative altogether. The hamburger makes it possible for the receiver not to take the criticism seriously, which isn’t what the feedback giver hopes for.

So how to improve and get rid of this habit? Instead of using a hamburger, give praise and criticism separately. If possible, use completely different occasions. If you need to give both praise and criticism at the same time, separate the two deliberately: These are the things that are/went well. These are the things that could be improved.

Generalizations lead us astray

The second most common pitfall when giving feedback is to use generalizations. Oh boy, did I feel a pinch in my heart when reading this part of the course for the first time… 

So what happens when we fall into this trap of generalizations? Heikura explains: First, we think the feedback we have in our mind is just something so small, so why bother to bring it up? Then it happens again and annoys us a bit more, but we still don’t want to make a big deal out of it. Time goes by, and these small irritations pile up until the day comes when we’ve had it. When we give feedback after weeks, months, or even years, it’s common to end up using generalizations.

  • “You always do that.”
  • “You never do that.”

Heikura emphasizes that just a few instances are enough for us to conclude that the other person always does something we don’t want or never does something we do want. When we’re upset, we tend to stress our point by stating how general, and thus big a deal, this thing is.

When we use generalizations, we end up arguing about those generalizations. Because the thing is, nobody always or never does anything. The feedback receiver can likely remember at least one instance when they did or didn’t do exactly what we’re accusing them of. They’ll use that one instance to cancel our argument — which will frustrate us so much because we can remember so many other cases where the other person hasn’t behaved that way. But the truth is, our argument isn’t valid. We’re claiming that they always or never. That’s not true.

So how to improve and get rid of this habit? Take just one instance, and use that as the base for your feedback. You can say this has happened often or repeatedly, but stop using always and never.  

Back-channeling makes it hard to apply the feedback

The last common mistake in giving feedback is back-channeling, which means not giving the feedback directly to the person but rotating it through somebody else. That somebody can be, for example, a manager or a team lead, an HR person, a project manager, a product owner, or another colleague. 

Heikura emphasizes that if we don’t participate in the feedback-giving but rotate it completely through a third party, they won’t be able to discuss the necessary feedback with the receiver. The third party doesn’t know what’s happened. Even if you tell them everything in detail, they’re crippled in delivering the feedback when they try to protect your anonymity. The feedback becomes something general like: “I’ve been told that there has been a case where you have behaved this way.”

The normal reaction of the receiver is to ask, “what case was that?” because they want to recall the situation. If they’re not granted information about the case, it’s very difficult to accept and apply the feedback. Heikura explains: “We can’t analyze the situation and our behavior in it. We can’t self-reflect and improve. If somebody’s behaving badly, one brave person can be the spokesperson to many. They can tell the receiver that they’re not the only one who feels this way and that there are many instances. Yet it’s still best if the feedback giver has one particular instance as an example so the receiver can start processing and self-reflecting.”

So how to improve and get rid of this habit? Whenever you feel the urge to roll the responsibility of giving feedback to someone else, stop and think: Couldn’t I give the feedback myself? If not, could I do it with some help?

Giving feedback isn’t always easy, but creating a healthy feedback culture strengthens the whole team. Arguments and disagreements are inevitable. Handling them well makes the team stronger.

Do you want to become better at giving and receiving feedback yourself? Take the course with your team or entire organization by leaving us your contact details here


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