For most of us, both giving and receiving feedback can be difficult. We often struggle to avoid the formulaic "feedback sandwich," where we couch our criticisms between layers of praise. And as important as feedback is to our career trajectories, accepting feedback without getting defensive is no easy task.

In this podcast, Ellen Taaffe, a clinical professor of leadership at the Kellogg School, offers lessons from her decades with companies from PepsiCo to Whirlpool about the most effective ways to give and receive feedback, as well as what to do if you are not getting any feedback at all.

Then psychologist and Kellogg professor Eli Finkel, author of the book The All-or-Nothing Marriage: How the Best Marriages Work, describes the ways we can improve communication and feedback in our careers and our relationships.


Podcast Transcript 

Jessica LOVE: Receiving feedback in the workplace is not easy.  

You really do want to improve yourself, so you try to keep an open mind. But it’s hard to be open-minded about how you are falling short.  

And giving feedback? Probably even harder. You hope your team will truly absorb your constructive criticism. But can you deliver it without damaging egos, or having everyone get defensive and stop listening?  

A lot of us have come to rely on “the feedback sandwich”: First you say something positive. Then something negative. Then something positive again. The idea is that by carefully spreading your criticism between two fluffy layers of praise, the whole thing will be easier to swallow.  

Ellen Taaffe has seen the feedback sandwich served over and over. But in her 30-plus years with companies such as PepsiCo, Royal Caribbean, and Whirlpool, it’s never struck her as particularly appetizing.   

Ellen TAAFFE: I would caution people to be careful of using a formula to give feedback. It becomes really blatant and obvious, and people become waiting for that structure, and it's not really authentic and real.  

LOVE: No matter how astute your comments are, a well-worn delivery method will make that feedback ring hollow—like you’re more concerned with sticking to the script than with actually helping someone improve.  

But at the same time, few of us are comfortable laying out the precise ways our colleagues are or aren’t measuring up.  

Small wonder that many of us dodge these obstacles by avoiding feedback altogether. But that means depriving ourselves and our colleagues of a powerful mechanism for growth.  

TAAFFE: In the work environment, we have a duty to give and get feedback. It's your duty as a manager, but also if you're managing your career, you want to get feedback. It's the only way to get better and to get to what you want.  

LOVE: Welcome to the Kellogg Insight podcast. I’m your host, Jessica Love.  

Today we’re going to hear from producer Fred Schmalz. He talks with Professor Ellen Taaffe about the most effective ways of giving and receiving feedback, as well as what to do if you’re not getting any feedback at all. We will also talk to a professor with a wonderful new book about marriage—because tough, high-stakes conversations aren’t just reserved for the office. 

Stay with us.  

 

Fred SCHMALZ: After decades in the corporate world, Ellen Taaffe is now a clinical assistant professor of leadership and director of women’s leadership programming at the Kellogg School. She recognizes that a lot of us are pretty reluctant to give feedback, particularly negative feedback.  

TAAFFE: I believe that most people are afraid to give feedback because they don't want to come off as mean. They don't want to be disliked, and they certainly don't want to hurt anyone’s feelings.  

I've had to get ready for the tough conversation of giving feedback, and I knew that this was going to be really difficult to receive. Sometimes I've even started a conversation with, "This is going to be a tough conversation.”  

SCHMALZ: She also advises knowing exactly what the other person’s career goals are. That way, when you tell people why their performance isn’t measuring up, you can frame it as helping them understand what they need to do in order to get where they want to go.  

It helps, too, to tie the feedback you’re giving to your organization’s larger goals. That encourages the listener to hear it as objective information, rather than as a personal attack.  

TAAFFE: The more you can explain objectively what was happening and why it matters for the individual's development, for their career, for the business, the better off you are and they are in being able to understand it and to act upon the feedback.  

SCHMALZ: The people getting feedback are also more likely to accept it as fair and actionable if they know exactly what your expectations are—and that everyone in that role is being judged by the same standard.  

TAAFFE:  When you're managing a team, and team members are in similar positions or have similar responsibilities, you want to be clear on expectations and your criteria and apply equally across. People want to be treated objectively. If you operate that way, you become a respected leader and manager of others. And then there's no surprises, which is what we all want.   

SCHMALZ: One way to both soften the emotional impact of negative feedback and make it more helpful is to remember that people’s weaknesses are often the flip side of their strengths.  

For example, the executive who sometimes makes decisions a little too rashly is probably the same one who’s great at taking action when necessary. The employee who doesn’t speak up enough in meetings is often the same person who’s really good at supporting the other members of his team and letting them shine.  

So when opportunities for improvement are framed in the context of someone’s strengths, feedback becomes a developmental tool, not a marker of deficiency. The message goes from, “Fix your flaws,” to “Keep playing to your strengths while you neutralize your weaknesses.”  

TAAFFE: For me, the best feedback that I got was feedback that I received over time as I was moving up in the organization. It was communicated to me in a way that combined the strengths I had with the underlying flip-side of that. For example, I have the personality that is calm in the storm. I'm really good in a troubled situation. I can stay cool in it. I can lead others out of that, but my range of excitability or that kind of thing is limited. I got feedback that, "You really need to elevate your energy and stand-up leadership skills," which was really fair feedback. I'd get all the positives of this: strategic, visionary, calm in the storm, wise, thoughtful. But, boy, did I need to learn how to elevate my style and my energy if I was suddenly communicating to a thousand people in the sales meeting.  

It was delivered to me in this way that I felt like my boss was rooting for me; really helped me with how do I remain authentic to myself but recognize I'm in a situation where I've really got to step it up with the sales team. 

SCHMALZ: Another powerful tool for delivering feedback: video.  

Taaffe remembers participating in a professional-development negotiation exercise that was videotaped. Seeing her actions on film afterwards was eye-opening.  

TAAFFE: I was in a training session where they put us in a simulated situation where I was along with a partner, negotiating a deal with a group of people. It was all on video.  

It was one of those crushing things to see yourself on video. It was a bit of, "I'll take my toys and go home," which would not have been a good long-term relationship builder with people you have to work with.  

SCHMALZ: For those on the other side of this equation—people genuinely interested in receiving feedback, whether it’s good or bad—it’s important to note that you don’t need to wait for a training session. The next time a video conference call is recorded, watch it afterwards. Observe yourself in action.  

And if you’re looking for feedback that’s a little more direct? Just ask for some. Then ask again.  

TAAFFE: It's incumbent upon you to make sure you're asking those questions of your manager or your mentor or your teammates so that you're getting that feedback, and you're also communicating that you really want feedback, you want to keep getting better, and you're open to it.  

 

LOVE: When it comes to mastering the art and science of workplace feedback, insights can come from unexpected places. Like ... marriage.  

In his new book, The All-or-Nothing Marriage: How the Best Marriages Work, author Eli Finkel explores the multiple demands of the modern marriage. Finkel, a psychologist and a Kellogg professor who studies the dynamics of relationships, draws important parallels between “all or nothing” marriages and our careers.  

Much of the advice Finkel has for improving marital conversations applies equally well to encouraging healthier and more productive conversations at work.  

So let’s start by understanding a fundamental shift that has happened to the institution of marriage over time.  

Eli FINKEL: So in 2017, we’ve arrived at a place where the best marriages today are better than the best marriages that we’ve seen in the past. Whereas at the same time, the average marriage is actually getting a bit worse.  

The major change that has led to this divergence is that our expectations of marriage have changed. So we no longer look to our marriage to help us with basic survival. I mean before industrialization, the idea of marrying for love and personal fulfillment would have seemed silly. We prefer to love our spouse but that wasn’t the point of marriage, right? The point of the marriage was literally food production, clothing, shelter.  

LOVE: But these days we do expect love and respect from our spouse. And many of us have also come to expect something else—something that can be really challenging for a spouse to deliver: personal growth.  

FINKEL: You’ll hear things for the first time like, he’s a wonderful man, I love him and respect him, but I just feel like I’m stagnant in the marriage and I’m not going to tolerate that for the next 30 years.  

This is what’s led to the all-or-nothing status of marriage today. Specifically, marriages that would have been fulfilling in 1950 are not fulfilling today. They fall short of our higher-level expectations. While at the same time, those higher-level expectations, when we fulfill them, are profoundly fulfilling and in a way that would have been out of reach in an era when we weren’t even trying to fulfill those things.  

LOVE: In asking a lot of our spouses, we sometimes ask for things that are not mutually compatible.  

FINKEL: So one of the things that we ask our spouse to do, for example, is to make us feel loved and safe.  

So we do like that type of nurturing. Not everybody likes it the same way, but to some degree all of us want to feel that our spouse has this unconditional affection for who we are and is proud of us, while at the same time, we also look to our spouse as a source of motivation to improve ourselves, to make ourselves a better version of ourselves, to become more authentic, to approach our ideal self rather than stay with our actual self, to become better.  

LOVE: The trick with giving feedback that both nurtures us and pushes us to improve is that those two things can seem at odds with one another. Like saying: “You’re great. Now change.”  

 

You may be thinking that this dynamic doesn’t sound that different from the often-tricky balance that colleagues have to strike. After all, they too want to be supportive while bringing out the very best in each other. And all this is happening at a time when many people don’t view themselves as “working a job” so much as “building a career.”  

FINKEL: So it used to be, I mean go back a hundred years and think about people working in a mine or on an assembly line or whatever. It used to be that sort of a mediocre thing that paid the bills was OK. We were happy with that. It was fine.  

By and large we wanted a job that paid the bills. And for more and more of us today a job like that isn’t sufficient. We’re quite demanding of our jobs and our careers. Not everybody, but certainly many more of us than in the past, and I think that too has driven us into an all-or-nothing job, an all-or-nothing career sort of situation where a job that would have been totally fulfilling in 1940 is falling short of our expectations today that this is going to provide an environment for personal growth and a sense of vitality and meaning and purpose.  

At the same time, the unwillingness to settle for a job like that makes us push for the sort of job that actually can achieve those levels of meaning and purpose and self-expression. And so the lucky among us—not the majority, but the lucky among us—are able to build a career and find a job that is fulfilling in a way that was out of reach in earlier eras of employment.  

LOVE: It’s important not to take the parallels too far. There are plenty of reasons why people may be feeling less fulfilled by their work than they used to feel, and plenty of differences between marriages and careers.  

But marriages and careers can both feel like places where the stakes are high, which means that delivering feedback can be incredibly loaded.  

Finkel offers guidance about how to have productive conversations in high-stakes situations. And some of this advice could prove helpful the next time you have to give feedback to a colleague.  

FINKEL: One thing that all of us have to remember when we're giving feedback is that people will receive the feedback on multiple levels. So we are probably focusing on the content that we're conveying that says, “You need to do better about X,” for example, but the person receiving the feedback often does hear that, but much more loudly hears things like, “You don't value me,” or “Who are you to judge me?”  

LOVE: So when you’re delivering feedback—whether it’s to your spouse about the dishes piling up in the sink or to your employee about an overdue report—be aware that what you’re saying and what the other person is hearing may not be the same thing.  

It also helps to have what Finkel describes as a “growth mindset” about the relationship—so that you look at conflict situations as opportunities to learn about yourself and your colleague, rather than as a litmus test of your compatibility.  

FINKEL: I don't want to give the misimpression that it's easy. You just sort of snap your fingers and develop a new philosophy of how relationships work. But I would urge everyone to consider, what if you spent five minutes a week thinking of ways that yes, there is such a thing as compatibility. I'm not going to deny that. But are there ways I can make the relationship a little stronger? Are there ways we can learn a little bit more about each other? Are there ways that fighting allows us to have the sort of communication that makes us understand each other a little bit better? And the answer to all of those questions is yes. And then the additional question is can we tilt ourselves a little more in the growth direction? And for most of us, the answer to that one also will be yes.  

LOVE: It’s also incumbent on us not to get defensive when we’re on the receiving end of feedback, no matter how unwarranted what we’re hearing may seem in that moment. It’s one thing to get negative feedback about our performance at work. It’s another thing to react in a way that shows we can’t handle the truth.  

FINKEL: And it may be that the feedback isn't totally accurate, isn't totally fair. It's one person's perception. Fair enough. But in the moment at least, behave like an adult and take the feedback standing up. You're a big boy or a big girl. And getting defensive in the moment is almost uniformly going to be counterproductive.  

LOVE: That doesn’t mean that you have to swallow every unfair criticism that comes along, of course. It simply means that responding to negative feedback in a reactive, rather than a proactive, way is not in your best interest. This is one instance in which holding your tongue may be a smart strategy.  

FINKEL: It may well be that you have compelling counterarguments and that you really feel like they're important to share with your supervisor on why you have a perception that the feedback wasn't well placed. But the time to give that rebuttal is not sitting there in the room when you're first receiving the feedback. Process it. Think carefully about it. Try to see the validity in the feedback, because more often than not there will be some validity, and if you have something you want to say in response, take some time and word it in a polite, respectful way, but not right then.  

 

LOVE: This program was produced by Jessica Love, Fred Schmalz, Emily Stone, and Michael Spikes. It was written by Anne Ford.  

Special thanks to our guests Ellen Taaffe and Eli Finkel.  

You can stream or download our monthly podcast from iTunes, Google Play, or our website, where you can read more about giving and receiving feedback in the workplace.  

And speaking of feedback—we’d love to hear yours. Please rate our show on the platform where you found us—that helps even more people find us.  

Visit us at insight.kellogg.northwestern.edu. We’ll be back next month with another Kellogg Insight podcast.