How To Perfect Feedback At Work with Psychology

  • Brace
  • February 19, 2020
  • 10 min

Some say effective feedback at work is less of a science and more of an art. But that doesn’t mean that science shouldn’t inform your feedback craft. Psychology provides essential insights into how the human mind works, and since employees are human, these insights have recently been turned to the workplace. To help you understand why feedback is important, how it’s received by your team, and how to make it effective, we’ve brought together the best insights from current psychological studies and put them right at your fingertips.

Why Is Feedback Important, Anyway?

Everyone in a workplace has a task and certain expectations to fulfill. In the simplest terms, it’s a team. Unfortunately, sometimes teammates don’t always pull their weight. However, this is not because they are incompetent or lazy. In many cases, they don’t even know whether they aren’t meeting expectations or if they are doing something right. This is where feedback comes in.

Even if it’s difficult, discussions about performance help all sides to align their efforts and cooperate effectively. In fact, 3 out of every 4 employees want input from their managers, while only 25% actually get it. Providing feedback is one easy way for managers to help their employees grow, while solving problems, building their team and increasing productivity. Unfortunately, for many, giving and getting feedback is easier said than done.

Why Is Getting Feedback So Hard?

Have you ever received a bad grade on a paper or had to redo a project? How did it make you feel? Probably not good and maybe even a little defensive. And that’s no surprise. This is exactly the reaction that feedback can trigger. According to a study by Allison L. O’Malley and Jana B. Gregory of Butler University, “Negative feedback is registered as a threat to the self that needs to be countered, and evolutionary perspectives suggest that negative emotions prepare us to handle such threats.”Simply stated, feedback can feel like an attack, rather than a step toward improvement and growth. If not properly approached, this response can defeat the point of feedback, leading feedback-ees to reject the input out of self-defense, rather than learning from it.

Giving feedback can be just as bad.

This reality also affects the feedback-er, making them hesitant and unwilling to cause someone else discomfort. Of course, by delaying, the problem only becomes worse. Some managers even suppress their complaints until it becomes too much and they just explode, ruining any chance of reaching the employee or improving their work, while increasing the chance of losing a team member.

It seems like millennia of evolution never prepared the human mind for the needs of the workplace. But there’s always hope.

Canceling The Negative With The Positive: Giving Balanced Feedback

A logical answer would be “well, why don’t we just use positive feedback instead?” A noble thought.

Unfortunately, positive feedback is only effective for encouraging things that are already being done well, but not so good at initiating change. The trick, according to O’Malley and Gregory, is to use elements of positive feedback to counteract the defensive reactions to negative feedback. This lets the employee hear what you are saying and grow from it.

Their study states you need these 4 elements to make your feedback more effective:

4 Elements of Effective Feedback


  • Empathy: This describes the ability to understand what someone else is feeling. Empathy lets you build trust and understand what your employee is feeling, so your feedback is received better.
  • Mindfulness: Understanding the circumstances of your employees without judging them is key to framing your feedback effectively. Be aware of what employees are feeling and experiencing and react sympathetically.
  • Appreciative Inquiry: This sounds fancy but simply means to frame your feedback as a future-oriented question. “How could the development goals benefit you going forward?”
  • Learning Goals: Packaging feedback as a way to increase competency rather than a performance failure helps reduce negative emotions and lets employees learn from rather than reject your input.

The Power Of Listening: How Attentive Leaders Create Open Feedback Culture

Harnessing the effectiveness of feedback requires more than just communication but instead needs a healthy, open feedback culture. In short, for feedback to be effective, your team needs to be open to it, want it, and have a supportive environment.

One way to promote this, what psychologists call “feedback-seeking behavior,” is quite simple. Just listen. And that’s not only an opinion but is the result of a 2019 study by Qian et al.

According to the science, leaders who listen are correlated to:

  • increased trust in their team,
  • have a better understanding of their employee’s concerns, and
  • help reduce team members’ fear of losing status or job security by sharing an opinion, which is a big stumbling block for effective feedback cultures.

What it means to listen as a manager

In psychology, managerial listening is defined as“the extent to which leaders attentively and proactively listen to employees’ concerns.”This simple behavioral change or soft skill is integral for managers and effective feedback. Luckily, the researchers also suggest easy ways to be a better listener.

The few simple steps include…

  • … paraphrasing what employees say, to check for understanding.
  • … Making emphatic comments, to show your connections and interest in the subject.
  • … Asking fitting questions, to gain a better perspective and show you are engaged.

>> Check out our complete guide to feedback for more ideas on how to encourage discussion and start really listening. <<

There’s No Effective Feedback Without Organizational Support

Listening is a key step but doesn’t make feedback effective on its own. Rather, listening is part of a system of measures that make employees feel comfortable enough to share their valuable perspectives. This whole network is called organizational support.

Each, however, complements the other. In the study by Qian et al, listening becomes significantly more effective at promoting feedback-seeking when organizational support is higher. This emphasizes the interconnectedness of the workplace and the need to build up all aspects of the working environment including employee experience.

What Does Organizational Support Look Like In Action?

Organizational support and feedback culture are integral parts of effective feedback, but that does you no good if you don’t know what exactly they look like. A supportive environment can learn a lot from the discussion around employee engagement. The goal of both is to make employees feel connected, accepted, trusted, and appreciated. With these in place, a culture of feedback can flourish with open discussion and exchange of ideas.

What makes employees feel this way? Qian et al suggest implementing opportunities to grow, increased employee input in decisions, and reward systems that emphasize appreciation as a start.

Actively used digital feedback tools can also help start the conversation and increase the feeling of being heard amongst employees.

>> 📖 Read more about employee engagement here for an in-depth understanding of what makes employees feel connected and supported. <<

The Benefits Of Feedback Culture On Performance

Of course, feedback can’t just be pursued for feedback’s sake. It also needs to have concrete benefits for the company. That is what Thomas Rhys Evans and Agata Dobrosielska researched in their 2019 contribution to Current Psychology.

In their study of 280 UK employees and managers, the researchers found that feedback, feedback culture, and task performance are all closely intertwined. How you may ask?

In the words of Evans and Dobriosieska“positive feedback is likely to have a greater positive impact upon task performance when enacted in the context of an appropriate feedback-seeking culture.”In companies where the feedback culture was below average, positive feedback showed very little impact on task performance. However, in above-average feedback cultures, the positive feedback directly improved employee results.

The better the feedback culture, the more managers can drive performance with feedback. A win-win for all.

Synthesizing The Science: How Psychology Drives Effective Feedback At Work

Effective feedback is complicated and gets hung up on many very human quirks. Whether natural psychological defenses that get triggered by negative feedback, an unsupportive environment, or the simple stress of having to give feedback, there’s always a hurdle to watch out for. Luckily, knowing the problems lets you make good solutions.

Here are 6 tips from psychology to help you overcome complications and make your feedback effective.

  1. Train and pay attention to your soft skills like empathy and mindfulness.
  2. Ensure an environment of support in your company through integrative decision-making processes and supportive HR.
  3. Be a better listener and always be attentive by asking questions and paraphrasing for understanding.
  4. Give feedback rather than letting it build up into frustration. This only leads to outbursts that can destroy the employee-manager relationship and any chance of implementing change.
  5. Integrate elements of positive feedback such as framing criticism as learning goals and helping your employees understand how the desired behavioral changes help them grow.
  6. Use digital tools and regular feedback to ensure you build an open, supportive, and transparent culture of exchange.

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kununu engage is an application that allows you and your entire company to share continuous and anonymous feedback about what working in the company is like. This insight and transparency can help a company function better and build a stronger company culture.