Mentoring and giving feedback: Is your feedback missing the mark?

By Dr Kay Guccione, Head of Researcher Development at the University of Glasgow, and FLF+ Network Mentoring Specialist.

This blog is part of a series written for our FLF+ Network Leadership Mentors, and is provided open access so that it can be used by anyone who is interested in improving their feedback skills. I draw my examples in this post from across the different mentoring programmes I’ve worked on, but you will recognise that these ideas also apply to personal tutoring, doctoral and masters supervision too, as well as to line management.

Is your feedback missing the mark? 

I have been selected as ‘Reviewer of the Year’ by a handful of journals, for giving developmental feedback, and it’s fair to say I’m very proud of this recognition. I am pleased to be recognised in this way, because giving feedback that helps people develop is a core competency of being a good teacher, academic, and mentor. Being a good mentor, and helping others to engage with mentoring techniques, is something I’ve been an advocate for in my professional life.

Disclosure though, I cribbed my feedback skills from a tutor on my Coaching and Mentoring MAEd – the superbly skilled Rose Schofield, a grand dame of feedback. Part of my learning with Rose over the years, as her student, and then as her colleague teaching on the MA Educational Leadership, was to understand what it was about her feedback that motivated people to want to do better. Rose’s feedback to me made me want to listen, think, and to evaluate and improve my work, all without her having to ever point out to me ‘what could be better’. She helped me to see for myself that improvement of my thinking, writing, and career choices was possible. She did this by asking me questions, and by choosing those questions carefully, selecting ones that I myself wanted to know the answer to.

I run regular workshops now, for lots of different institutions and businesses that support staff to add mentoring and coaching techniques to their teaching, management, supervision and leadership repertoires. One discussion I always like to let run, and to help people explore, is how to give feedback that the recipients will actually hear, analyse, and respond to.

How to give feedback that the recipients will actually hear, analyse, and respond to

Giving feedback that acknowledges areas for improvement, and that doesn’t cause the receiver to feel ashamed, close down, clam up, be upset, get defensive or start an argument, is difficult. This is because effective feedback is dependent on more than the structure or mechanism you apply — the relationship between giver and receiver really matters. Additionally, their relationship to the work, career, behaviour or decision you are critiquing, will impact on how the feedback is heard and processed.

There is widespread usage now of a formulaic ‘sandwich’ approach to giving balanced feedback (Whitman & Schwenk, 1974) that goes: ‘good bit, critical bit, good bit’. This formula for feedback isn’t as effective as we are led to believe and there are a number of criticisms of it available in the literature. At the time of publishing, it did a great service to medical education, but has become outdated for use today.

The sandwich method has lost effectiveness because the recipient (a) knows what you’re doing, and so (b) dismisses the positive bits and still feels defensive about the negative bits. This is because using a formula can seem generic, disingenuous, or inauthentic, and we all know of the temptation to write the criticism first and then add in positive ‘filler’ to cushion the blow.