The Paradox of Feedback

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This week I had the privilege of conducting leadership development training with a talented group of managers. One of the topics we discussed was feedback. It was one of our most robust discussions and I’ll share some of the ideas we discussed with you today.

Feedback is a paradox because we all want it…but only if we like it. This is why the question “Do you like my new haircut” is fraught with danger! If we respond with a ‘yes’, we usually tell the person what they want to hear. When we respond with a hesitant ‘no’ we can encounter their disappointment, anger or hurt. Our desire for honest feedback is often conditional.

In their book, Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well, Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen help us understand why this occurs. They note that people have two basic human needs:

  1. The need to learn and grow and,
  2. The need to be respected, accepted, and loved the way I am now.

Feedback is a great way to learn and grow. For example, my golf swing has improved lately because of some simple feedback that I was given related to my stance when I hit the ball. I want to improve my game (learn and grow) so this feedback was important, valuable and beneficial.

However, sometimes feedback conflicts with our second need. When I was fired by our new president I was given tremendous opportunity to learn and grow (see Why Getting Fired is a Good Thing). But I could not begin to understand this because I faced a wall that told me I was no longer respected or accepted by the organization I had given my all to.

In short, we want feedback unless it bumps into our need to feel respected, accepted and loved. Understanding these two simple needs can help us filter the feedback we receive. Feedback which only meets need number one is easy! However, when feedback bumps into need number two we must assess the causes of our anxiety. Not all feedback is good feedback. But even when it isn’t, we can use it to learn and grow.


Jeff Head Shot 3.jpgDr. Jeff Suderman is a lifelong learner, consultant, professor and pracademic who works in the field of organizational development. He partners with clients to improve culture, leadership, teamwork, organizational alignment, strategy and organizational future-readiness. He resides in Palm Desert, California. Twitter: @jlsuderman


  1. Nancy Best

    There are times we get feedback we did not request and we stand confused. Is it sincere or is it a platitude? We can be very uncomfortable with something that was not expected. It is difficult, while asking a simple question may just relieve the anxiety. What especially did you like? Is there something more that I may have added? Finding the strong parts of others and not those that you may have intended is a true learning lesson. Anxiety and confusion may sometimes lead to new expectations.

    • Jeff Suderman

      This is a great example of how feedback can negatively bump into our need for respect, acceptance and love. Thanks Nancy!


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