Dollops of feedback

 In Articles

The first time I sang in public, I brought the house down.

The school music teacher was recruiting for the choir. He had lined up the class at his piano and was playing a single note, and one by one we had to sing ”Ahhh” in tune to the note. My effort provoked a storm of laughter that held up proceedings for a couple of minutes. The look of disapproval on the teacher’s face probably got a bigger laugh than my completely off-key attempt. I was not offered a place in the choir, and I never sang in public again.

A couple of years later in the English class, I was handed back an essay I had written on the scene in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar where Cassius recruits Brutus into the ranks of Caesar’s assassins. I got a good mark. I don’t remember what it was, but I do remember the comment on the assignment. “One day you are going to be the president of South Africa.” That clearly did not happen – but for much of my life I have been politically active, and for my whole life I have been a confident and interested reader and producer of much written work.

These two incidents came to mind recently when I was reading an article on the importance of feedback in education.

“The most powerful single moderator that enhances achievement is feedback. The simplest prescription for improving education must be “dollops of feedback” – providing information how and why the child understands and misunderstands, and what direction the student must take to improve”.

It struck me that this is as true in life and at work as it is at school. Feedback, simply, is the sum of the messages we receive from our environment about what we are doing; and our growth as individuals is largely the sum of our responses to that feedback – from parents, peers and other important people in our lives.

Mostly, feedback is informal and unstructured. The disapproving looks one receives when saying “the wrong thing” or the pat on the back from the coach after playing a good game; the rush of pleasure we feel when people laugh at our jokes, and the anxiety we feel when they don’t – these moments are the stuff of daily feedback and response. We all tend to note these moments, experiencing them as pleasant or unpleasant, and modify our behaviour accordingly. My retreat into only ever singing in the shower is a good reminder of the power of feedback in our lives.

At work, we believe we have many tools to improve productivity and team function. Companies spend time and effort on training programmes, mentorship, off-site breakaways, performance management systems and disciplinary action as a last resort. Much of this becomes an unproductive and uncomfortable ritual; something we do because – well that’s what we have always done.

Companies could make enormous strides in improving productivity if they recognised two truths in relation to feedback.

Firstly, feedback is the single most important contributor to changes in personal and team behaviour. We should therefore ensure that companies dole out “dollops of feedback.”  Everything else we do, from training to incentive payments, begins with feedback.

Secondly, we are generally bad at delivering feedback – which is a serious problem if it is our primary tool for improving productivity. Just think of all the uncomfortable performance assessment conversations that happen (or don’t really happen) in your company every year, or the number of times that managers avoid dealing with poor behaviour in meetings, or re-do work that should be done by someone else to “keep the peace”. Every time this happens company culture frays at the edge, and productivity slips.

The truth is that for something so important, we devote very little energy to developing feedback, either as a practice in our companies or as a skill we expect leaders to have. Jennifer Porter puts it like this:

“Creating feedback that is truly useful requires more care and attention than is typically invested. Like any skill — chess, golf, learning Mandarin — offering strategic developmental feedback requires that we pay attention to and do many things effectively and simultaneously. Given the opportunity to help others develop and become more effective, it is worth the effort.”

I will talk about those “many things”, the skill and practice of giving feedback, in a future article. Before we even get to that we need to consider how to ensure that our workplaces are conducive to a culture in which feedback plays its central role in developing the skills, capabilities and productivity of the whole company. It is not something that just happens. Like the skill itself, developing the right environment takes commitment, time and effort.

Making your workplace “feedback friendly”

The role of leadership

If feedback is to take root as a practice in any company the leadership needs to do three things as role models.

First, they must behave as role models. No amount of feedback will change staff behaviour if they see the executives behaving differently. If you need people to be respectful, and to run highly effective meetings, or to hold their teams to account, no-one will do this if the CEO or CFO continually yell at people or regularly hold meetings that start late and run over time.

Second, they need to structure feedback processes for themselves and the company and be seen to respond to the feedback.

Third, they need to be model givers of feedback. If the executives cannot do it (or be bothered to do it) then there is no way on earth that managers down the chain will take feedback seriously.

The habit of feedback

In many companies, feedback is a once a year process. If it is linked to annual performance appraisals, and they in turn are linked to bonuses and salary increases, then the feedback process will be nothing but an ill-tempered arm wrestle about points. This is the very worst way to have staff listen to feedback and take it seriously.

Feedback should become a regular habit: this involves both formal feedback sessions which should happen at least quarterly, and more informal feedback. This happens after a project has been completed, or even at the end of a particularly intense period of work. If something happens in a meeting, or a deadline is not met, or a particularly good piece of work is completed, then feedback should be part of the process.

Feedback is about praise more than criticism. Dish it out in dollops!

If the phrase “I just want to give you some feedback” brings dread to your employees, then you really need to change the perspective on feedback. Positive feedback, genuinely meant, energises and encourages your staff and helps them to focus on what really works. It should be given more often than critical feedback. And even critical feedback should always aim to address an issue (and look for a better way) rather than criticise the individual. Then the phrase “I want to give you some feedback” would be expected and welcomed as an important part of an employee’s growth and progress.

Looking back with the perspective of decades – I can’t help but think that my relationship with music might have been quite different if that music teacher had sat me down and said “You are never going to be an opera singer, but with a little work we can teach you how to sing in tune.”

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Hattie, J. (1999). Influences on student learning. Inaugural Lecture, Auckland, August 2, 1999. Quoted in Hugo, W (ed) (2013) Cracking the Code in Educational Analysis. Pearson Cape Town

Porter, J. (October 2017). How to give feedback people can actually use. Harvard Business Review

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