“I’m just telling you this for your own good”:  The danger of making feedback personal

Is the feedback you receive or give, thought out or off the cuff? Is it supportive, or does it cut you or someone else down?

A client was sharing with me the death by a thousand cuts she was experiencing in meetings called by her superior.

When hearing the dreaded: “Can you see me afterwards please?”, she knew she was in for it.

“You didn’t look the other Section Head in the eye.”

“You laughed nervously.”

“Your voice was too high pitched!”

“Your demeanor is too passive! “


All this feedback was for her own good of course. She was being groomed for the next level after all, and had to start showing potential.

My client came away from those conversations with her self-esteem in tatters. She would sit at different corners of the board room table trying to deflect attention to others. It would work for a few meetings, and then the piercing eyes would come back to her.

In the past, she had had another difficult boss to please, but the comments were about files, or deliverables. Never about her minute batting of eyelashes! She left those past conversations annoyed, even angry, but never deflated and shamed. What was the difference?

The differences between feedback as a weapon vs feedback as information

Many of us know that feedback goes through the filter of another to get to you:  It gets coated with someone else’s values and judgement. Feedback, particularly from someone with authority, echoes for a long time.

Some of it may be valuable, to shake us out of habits that no longer serve us, and point to other possible ways of doing our work. And… some feedback is just plain destructive.

Let me illustrate the difference between attack and feedback with 3 workplace examples.

Feedback as weapon Feedback as Information mode
You are way too shy and speak too softly. Your voice didn’t carry to the back and I was having trouble hearing you.  I was frustrated because I value your perspective. What would facilitate your input at future meetings?  Is there anything we could consider in the setup for the next time?
You speak in circles, get to the point. I didn’t follow the structure of your presentation and got lost. Would you be open to laying out your plan at the outset next time, or providing visual support? Anything I could do to help? I would be happy to go through a dry run with you.
You are argumentative. I noticed you countered each of the suggestions made by team members. I felt uncomfortable about offering a new idea.  I am thinking this poster format may not be ideal for you or others on the team.


The left column is short and packs a punch, but the negative repercussions will usually cause more work in the long run!

The right column requires more thought, an investment that leads to a win-win for all concerned.  It’s about re-framing an accusation into an opportunity for conversation and cooperation.

The art of re-framing: how moving from attack to information can shift a work relationship

Over several conversations with her boss, my client reminded her of what was acceptable, what wasn’t and why.  Re-framing shifted the relationship for the better. It may never become a close, supportive relationship but the lines have been drawn in the sand and my client is more resourceful in her work and with meetings.

  • “I think that you mean well when you offer these comments and are hoping to groom me for senior ranks. Unfortunately, this type of feedback has the opposite effect on me.”
  • I can’t change my voice, demeanor or personality. Actually, I don’t want to change what makes me who I am, but I can change the messages and approaches. What results are you after that you are not getting now? What deliverables would meet your needs and those of the Division?
  • I am ready to work hard and put my energy to things I can actually change or improve. Would you be willing to work with me towards that goal?

How has re-framing the feedback you either give or receive impacted your work relationships? I look forward to reading your comments.

2 thoughts on “The Danger of Making Feedback Personal”

  1. These are very good examples thank you. I’ve been having conflict with some leadership members viewing me being too sensitive. Trying my best to prepare them for what they want, a promotion, I’ve in turn hurt their feelings in my honesty. I’ve dealt with this several times trying different approaches and received stagnant results. I’m about ready to give up on challenging them and accept what they bring to the table. How can I say, “The way that you have performed does not show me that you want a promotion,” in a touchy feely way?

    1. Dominique Dennery

      You ask a good question Kyle. I believe you are referring to giving feedback that is not well received and finding a better way to deliver it. Feedback is best received when it focuses on behaviors and the impact of those behaviors. If people think you are referring to their character, they will most often reject the feedback and feel attacked. The first question for you then is what is the focus of your feedback to them? Next question is how specific are you in your feedback? It’s useful to have specific observations on the behaviors and their impact. What about the timing of your feedback. Are you choosing a good time and space to provide the feedback in a way that is confidential and where the individual feels safe. If you have tried everything and your feedback is specific, well-timed, respectful and focused on behaviours they can change, rather than traits they can’t, then the final question managers and coaches have to answer is whether we want it more for them then they want it for themselves. It’s their career and their choice after all. Wishing you the best in your role.

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