Feedback - The Gift Conundrum

“Feedback is a gift!”

(Everyone 😀)

You’re always told that feedback is a gift! That's the catch phrase and people take it as a given. But be honest, is the feedback that "you suck at this or that" a gift? Or being mansplained everything you’re doing in the disguise of feedback?

What is a gift and what are the consequences of being gifted?

  • Everything that is given to you, be it something physical, but also advice, feedback, etc. can be seen as a gift.
  • There is no such thing as an unintentional gift; It always includes a motivation and urges the person who received it to reciprocate.
  • Gifting back is not optional but mandatory, at least in the eyes of the person who presented you with a gift.
“A gift always looks for recompense.”

(Marcel Mauss, The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies, London 1990 [1925], p. 7)

“The gift appears as an entirely free and voluntary act, but it is also [...] a social obligation.”

(Maurice Godelier, The Enigma of Gift, Chicago 1999, p. 18)

Where does this leave us with feedback?

To be honest, that depends.
There are different kinds of feedback, two of which are well known:

  • Positive Feedback
  • Constructive Feedback, sometimes also called Negative or Developmental Feedback

Positive feedback can be genuinely positive and as such have exactly the positive impact it should have. Unfortunately, there exists another dimension that can be labelled False Positive.
The later being the likes of “this was actually really good… for someone like you / with your background…” The difference can be hard to spot, but as soon as you have a conditional add-on to the positive notion it can turn false positive, using positive wording to belittle you, your accomplishments, etc.

And that's the point: Is this feedback still a gift? Should you accept it as such although it is meant to put the person gifting in an elevated position looking down on you? In theory, the expected reaction should be as expected or intended, being thankful for the praise and so on.

Ultimately, feedback is a gift: It is never unintentional and always triggers a reaction!

Now comes the interesting part! Gifting is – as already proven – always reciprocal. But it also is subjective. The receiver has the freedom to interpret or, even more correctly, judge the value of the gift. And this answers the question! Yes, every feedback is a gift! Because it is in your hands to interpret and evaluate it! In the given example you realize it is a false positive feedback, put it into the right context and you reciprocate: either give real constructive feedback on that behaviour or ignore it – you can react to it in whatever way you feel suitable. In any way, you can learn a lot about the person giving you false positive feedback: communication style, fears, triggers, hidden agenda, etc. There's always a reason why they do it, so use it to better understand them and work with them. And in the worst case the gift is, that you don’t want to engage with that person anymore. And this realization is a real gift!

As a company, you want to avoid False Positive feedback at all costs!

It creates friction, contempt and in the end will lead to unhappiness and a decline in engagement. The end of the story is a decline in productivity and - in the worst case - loss of exactly those people you want to keep.

How to invest in your feedback culture and train your people?

There are several ways to create a sustainable, on eye-level feedback culture and each company needs to find their way of doing it.
Nevertheless, there are some recommendations that make implementation easier:

  • Use a proper, widely in use framework for feedback, such as S(ituation)B(ehaviour)I(mpact)
  • Make it a top priority with full Executive buy-in
  • Roll out a company-wide training program
  • Ensure role-modelling throughout all hierarchies

When it comes to giving actual feedback, be it positive or constructive, experience clearly shows the strong willingness to give feedback doesn't suffice. There are many, quite often unconscious, blockers and pitfalls that can impede a company-wide usage and thus render all efforts moot.
There are some best practices everyone can adapt to their individual needs and are easy to use. Firstly, when giving feedback:

  • Write your feedback down and re-read it often as needed to avoid ambiguous language. Feedback should be recognized at face-value without having to read between the lines!
  • Do not give feedback immediately after the situation you want to feedback on. Emotions are a bad advisor and you don't want to mention things emotionally that lose their point after some consideration. But don't wait too long, as well. Feedback should be given timely and the situation it is about needs to be in everyone's mind.
  • Always give feedback with good intentions!
  • Always ask for permission to give feedback and schedule a short meeting if needed.
  • Do not offer solutions, specifically your solutions, in a feedback. If at all, offer support to find one in case you're asked for it.
  • Do not expect an immediate answer or reaction to your feedback. Give the receiver space to think.

Secondly, when receiving feedback:

  • Do not interrupt the person extending feedback and acknowledge it properly. It takes a lot of effort to prepare and courage to deliver it.
  • Always assume good intentions from person giving feedback!
  • There's no need to reply immediately to feedback, especially constructive feedback. It's completely fine to ask for time to think about it and discuss your thoughts later.
  • Don't agree to receive feedback when you're in a hurry or aren't mentally in a state to process it properly. Schedule it at a later time.


In an environment where a good, sustainable feedback culture is established, the reaction will be forward-focussed, creating a positive impact, even if the feedback was constructive!

  • Giving feedback shouldn’t be something people are afraid of because there might be backlash or any other negative repercussions.
  • Feedback is even more powerful when given with a good intention and connected to shared goals.
  • The more you invest in your feedback culture by role-modeling, offering trainings, etc., the more successful you will be as a company.
  • Implement a regular feedback loop to evaluate your feedback culture basis to avoid an unnoticed slip-off towards an unhealthy environment
A good feedback culture is vital for all healthy organizations and must be perceived by everyone as open and constructive.
Written by: Christian
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