Presence Point: Does Your Feedback Make Me Look Fat?

“Yesterday I thought you were fat, but today I can see it was the fault of the clothes.”

My daughter received that feedback from one of her adult Turkish ESL students. She laughed as she told me the story and she put that outfit on again and assessed it in front of the mirror from every possible angle to decide if she would ever wear it again.

Feedback/critique has been a topic of debate recently in my workshops, (in which positive feedback is given to the participants) particularly from athletes and young professionals. “If the coach tells you that you have a great arm, but doesn’t tell you that you don’t run fast enough – you won’t be in the game, period.”

Is there is a difference between “professional performers” receiving evaluation and the rest of us at work?

The good, the bad and the ugly

According to Sylvia Vorhauser-Smith in The Neuroscience of Performance, the results of performance feedback have to make you wonder: 30% leads to improvement, 30% has no effect, 40% makes things worse. Feedback was most likely to generate positive outcomes when it was directed at the task rather than at the attributes of the individual.

Much research has been conducted on the value of feedback in a variety of forms: multi-sourced (MSF) or 360° given in organizations, performance appraisals, classroom critiques. There is the common “s#!t sandwich” where the good news comes first, followed by the less than good news, and finished off with more good news. Many of us have had the experience of sitting in the chair, not hearing the beginning as we wait for the middle, and then not hearing the end because we are obsessed with the middle. And then there’s Simon Cowell on American Idol…

Lost in translation

No matter how well meaning our intentions are, delivering feedback is a delicate process.

“The problem with ‘constructive performance feedback’ is that, like a wolf sniffing a meal across a field, even a subtle status threat is picked up unconsciously by our deeply social brain, no matter how nicely it’s couched. As ‘constructive’ as you try to make it, feedback packs a punch. The result is that most feedback conversations revolve around people defending themselves.” - David Rock, Your Brain at Work (p.206)

Rock discusses our brain’s “toward vs. away” response. Our limbic system is predisposed toward being anxious (sensing threat) than being happy and is more intensely set off when it “perceives a danger compared to when it senses a reward . .  . Human beings walk toward, but run away.“ (p.107)

Atwater, Brett, Cherise Charles, Journal of Human Resource Management, 2007, state: “Performance appraisal and MSF research indicates that when individuals focus attention on the self and not the task, negative feedback is debilitating.

Reactions to negative feedback were not transitory mood states with minimal implications for leadership development, but rather influenced subsequent behavior.”

What works?

Vorhauser-Smith writes:

“Leaders play a crucial role in creating environments that foster threat and/or reward. There are direct implications on the performance of individuals and teams exposed to these environments. In a state of threat, the prefrontal cortex, with its conscious and controlled thinking processes, is effectively shut down by the significantly stronger forces of the limbic system. This subconscious brain region bases thinking on automatic patterns that have been ‘tried and true’, as well as self -preservation in the face of the perceived threat. As a result, performance is driven by fear or anxiety, inducing the stress state (in turn releasing the stress chemical cortisol), which was earlier shown to compromise performance outcomes.

When employees work with a leader who promotes reward states, the opposite psychological and physiological effects occur. The prefrontal cortex is active and integrates positivity with the limbic system. The reward chemical dopamine is released into the central nervous system in response to engagement in a challenging but supportive environment and optimal performance can be achieved.”

Research on student feedback in classrooms reveals particular components for successful learning and further development.

“To be effective, feedback needs to be clear, purposeful, meaningful, and compatible with students’ prior knowledge and to provide logical connections, . . . prompt active information processing on the part of learners, have low task complexity, relate to specific and clear goals, and provide little threat to the person at the self level. The major discriminator is whether it is clearly directed to the task, processes, and/or regulation and not to the self level . . . Learning can be enhanced to the degree that students share the challenging goals of learning, adopt self-assessment and evaluation strategies, and develop error detection procedures and heightened self-efficacy to tackle more challenging tasks leading to mastery and understanding of lessons. Students’ self-strategies and help seeking can mediate whether these effects occur.”

Research also shows that some people will respond positively to feedback while others won’t and in fact, it can have subsequent negative affects. Rock says:

“While the easy answer may seem to be to give people feedback, real change happens when people see things they have not seen before. The best way to help someone see something new is to help her quiet her mind so that she can have a moment of insight. As you have insights, you change your brain, and by changing your brain you change your whole world.”  (p.21)

How has feedback changed your world?  Please share your experiences on this important issue in the comments below.

Image credit: kooklanekookla

About Cheryl Dolan

Cheryl Dolan is a specialist in Presence, Communication and Creativity. Her mission is to cultivate clients’ innate strengths to develop the powerful communication and creative skills that will enhance personal and professional performance. Her Platinum Presence® Program has been delivered in international corporations, organizations, and institutes of higher education, including Harvard University and MIT Sloan School. Contact her at [email protected] or visit

  • Judith

    Excellent post, Cheryl. As a writer, I need and want feedback, but the feedback MUST be about the work, not about me. The worst feedback I ever received came in the form of an email that said, “…. more writing and editing, and less cutting and pasting from the transcripts.” The fact was, this group always demanded many direct quotes and there had been absolutely no “cutting and pasting,” because every one of those quotes were massaged — not great journalistic practice, I might add, but demanded by the folks I was working for.

    As you can tell, several years later, this comment still rankles. If he had said something like, “… you can take more charge of the material by paraphrasing more of these quotes,” which, by the way, is what an EXPERIENCED editor would have said, (see how my blood still boils!), for example, this comment would have felt more about the work and less about me. It also would have helped me develop and grow as a writer. I really resented his implication that I was just “cutting and pasting,” rather than “writing and editing.”

  • Susan Bernhard

    Thanks Cheryl, I enjoyed reading the article. I will try to learn from it and pass it along in all aspects of life.