The Feedback Paradox

I consistently hear from educators that they want feedback and then I hear that “they” aren’t receptive to the feedback.  Both are often true.

Here is an example of this feedback paradox:

We recently surveyed teachers in one district and overwhelmingly found that the majority of teachers sought “critical feedback to inform their practice, not just high fives or kudos.” As the data were presented to the administrators, many became frustrated and recounted story after story of how they had been met with defensiveness and hurt feelings when they had provided critical feedback.

As I heard this, I reflected on my initial reaction when I was first met with resistance to feedback I was providing and how my response was similar to many administrators I heard that day; I had quickly assumed that the recipients were just seeking positive accolades and didn’t really want to grow. Upon further reflection and some critical feedback from another colleague, I was reminded of a valuable lesson– feedback is best received when there is a relationship and the people feel they are valued.

Whether you are a teacher, a coach, or an administrator, your job is to develop the skills, knowledge, and attitudes of others in a variety of capacities. In education, feedback is a critical part of this work. Central to providing useful and effective feedback is the ability to develop and sustain relationships.


Investing the time and energy to get to know people as individuals, to understand their strengths, goals, and aspirations is critical to growth and development. The following excerpts from interviews with three teachers exemplify the impact of relationships on their openness to feedback.

Teacher 1: Stephanie reflected about the challenges she had with one of her mentors coming to observe her. “I figured it out that I don’t have a relationship with this woman and I don’t trust her to come into my room and observe me and really get what is going on because she hasn’t been around.” Stephanie felt vulnerable being observed and receiving feedback from someone who she did not trust nor had her best interests in mind.

Teacher 2: Similarly, Jeff desired more communication and feedback from his principal and explained that since he was half way through the school year and, “if my principal came in now it would be the first time I ever saw him in here and if he didn’t like it I would take it personal.”  He did not perceive that his principal cared about him or his development and therefore, if he had a critique, Jeff knew he would knew he would react defensively.

Teacher 3:  Maria had a much different experience. She felt that one of her mentors had taken the time to develop a relationship and as a result she expressed that she had become more receptive to mentoring as the year progressed.  She perceived this mentoring relationship as her best support throughout the year. “He gives me a ton of positive feedback to the point that I am more and more open and honest about what I am doing and seeking feedback.  So it has given me the confidence to try new things.”

Mentoring or coaching relationships are built by developing trust and are maintained by consistent interactions and valuable feedback. These teachers connected both positive and negative relationships with the administrator, mentor, or coach to their openness to feedback. It is important to note that there are great protocols and questioning techniques that allow for rich dialogue and powerful conversations and these are important for helping people to move forward, but if you don’t have a relationship, none of it will matter. 

So, before you give leave a sticky note with 2 glows and a grow or provide a feedback sandwich after a quick observation, think about these 3 questions that my friend and great leader, Brandon Wiley shared with a group we were working with:

Do you see me? Do you know me? Will you grow me?

  1. Do you see me?  Have you taken the time to get to know the person as an individual?  Have you shared anything about yourself?  Can you talk to this person about anything but work?
  2. Do you know me? Can you name the strengths of this individual? Do you know what success they have had?  Do you know where they struggle and why?  Do you understand the barriers or challenges this person faces in their role?
  3. Will you grow me? Do you know their personal goals or aspirations?  Have you co-developed goals to work on that you can refer to? How is your feedback connected to who they are and where they want to grow?

I love how simple and powerful these questions and and try and think about them when I work with people in a variety of contexts and appreciate when I get the same in return. We are more willing and able to hear critical feedback when it is coming from someone who we perceive cares about us as individuals, sees our strengths, and is willing to invest the time to help us grow. The reality is this will take more time to invest in getting to know people, but it will make moving forward much easier.

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