Ombud’s Corner: the gift of feedback (part 2)

“When feedback is specific and timely, and also accompanied by a genuinely positive intention, it may be considered to be a gift”. This was the concluding message of the article in the last Bulletin. But how can negative feedback be perceived as an appreciated and useful gift?


As discussed in the previous article, delivering meaningful and effective feedback is an art, and as such, it may also be considered a duty for supervisors, in particular, to invest in honing their skills in order to achieve this aim without triggering demotivation or frustration in their supervisees. But the feedback loop is a two-way process, and requires an open mind on the receiving end in order to be truly useful. If delivered in a constructive and respectful way, feedback can provide us with important clues as to our own possible weaknesses and point us towards ways in which to develop and grow professionally. However, for it to be truly effective, it is up to each of us to hold back our initial defensive reactions and focus on those aspects of the message that indicate the way forward.

When Anna provides John with specific appreciation of his strengths as a technical expert as well as the areas that he needs to develop if he wishes to move towards leadership, he is faced with a clear and informed picture of both his current limitations and his future potential. If he is able to put aside his feelings of disappointment, and recognise the wisdom in her words, he will find himself much better equipped to choose the best path that he should pursue, together with an understanding of the steps he needs to take to get there.

So if feedback is a gift, what sometimes prevents our supervisors from offering it – could it be that we ourselves are at least partially responsible for their reluctance? How often are we guilty of instantly rejecting feedback or reacting emotionally without even being willing to consider it? Do we take the initiative to ask for feedback and respond by actually acknowledging our own shortcomings with a view to improving on them? Are we indeed always the best judges of our own performance or future potential?

Thanks to Anna’s constructive attitude, John actually listens to her view of the situation and thanks her … “ feeling much more valued for his role as technical trouble-shooter and specialist”… and, far from defending himself or instantly rejecting her feedback, he is able to acknowledge his current lack of leadership ability, all the more because she accompanies this with a recognition of the strengths that he does however bring to the team.

There can be no doubt that our own attitudes to receiving feedback have an impact on the actual quality of the message we receive, and the importance of keeping an open mind and listening cannot be stressed enough. If we make a genuine effort to understand what lies behind a certain judgement or perception, we will be in a much better position to either defend ourselves or take on board the message in a constructive spirit.

Of course, it is never easy to accept criticism, particularly if it is vague and blame-oriented, but when someone takes the time and care to deliver feedback in a sensitive manner with clear indications of ways to improve, then surely the onus shifts to us on the receiving end to recognise it for the gift that it is and accept the insight it brings with due consideration and thanks.

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All previous Ombud's Corners can be accessed in the Ombud's blog.

by Sudeshna Datta-Cockerill