Feedback for Success: Candor Without Blame

      Joe, you always show up late.” 

      Heather, you never speak up during meetings.” 

      Blair, your team is always late with their deliverables.” 


      How often have you heard this kind of feedback being delivered, or perhaps you hear yourself using those statements? 

      There are all sorts of opinions and resources on giving feedback. Feedback is always good, give it freely! Most feedback is ineffective, don’t give it at all! Focus on people’s strengths! Use the ‘shit’ sandwich approach…strength-weakness-strength!


      Giving feedback is often a difficult, but necessary, part of leadership. Without informal assessments of their performance, people may not know how they’re doing from day-to-day. Your feedback is essential to their growth and success in their role.  And there is no ‘one size fits all’ or one ‘absolutely correct way’ to go about giving feedback. 


      I was on a call with a relatively new leadership team the other day. They do a bi-weekly check in with each other and run through 3 questions in 30 minutes: What’s going well? What are we struggling with? Anything else important to share or ask? 


      This mid-level leadership team has been in their new roles for approximately 8 months. At the end of this call they noted that they thought things were going really well, especially given the unpredictable challenges of the past few months.


      I asked, “What kind of feedback are you getting from your leaders?” One person piped in, “No news is good news!” and the others laughed in agreement.  Now in this organization, that is the norm of feedback…so everyone trusts the system…they trust their leaders enough to know that if something were off or not going well, they would know about it. 


      What is never a good way to give feedback is to use BLAME. 


      Blame is toxic communication 


      One of the easiest ways to damage relationships is by blaming other people for things that have gone wrong, even when there is an actual performance issue. A psychology professor at the University of Washington named John Gottman identified four behaviors that sabotage relationships, and blame/criticism is at the top of the list.


      Even though Gottman’s book, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, has ‘marriage’ in the title it is a really an excellent piece of research on making ‘relationships’ work. And, you likely spend as much or more time with the people you work with than your partner! 


      Blame is toxic because it is an attack on the person. This attack then triggers a physical and emotional defensive response from the other person. The science behind this has to do with the amygdala getting hijacked. 


      The amygdala is a part of the limbic system in the brain that is geared to keep us safe and alive. The amygdala’s job is to process emotions and store memories of the events that elicited the emotions.


      In the future, if the same or similar event arises it triggers us to respond appropriately.  When you feel threatened and afraid, the amygdala automatically activates the fight-or-flight response by sending out signals to release stress hormones that prepare your body to fight or run away. This response is triggered by emotions like fear, anxiety, aggression, and anger.


      When you lead your feedback with blame you initiate a chemical reaction in the other person’s brain that essentially forces the other person to either defend themselves or flee. Let’s say you fired out one of the statements above in an attempt to give that person feedback, you’ll typically get one of these types of responses: 


      • Joe: “You know that I have to commute through heavy traffic. It’s not my fault.” 

      • Heather: “I’d speak up more if Marvin didn’t take up so much time with his ideas.” 

      • Blair: “I’d have that report done if there weren’t a million other things on my plate.” 


      Your ‘blaming’ feedback, even if it’s a perfectly reasonable observation and is meant to help the person be more successful, falls very short…your blame invites their counter-defense of putting the blame on something or someone else.   


      Learn About Workshops and Team Faciliation


      In a recent Harvard study, it showed that the recipient of the feedback, instead of improving their performance, more often chose to distance themselves from the person giving the feedback.  Although this study was focused on peer to peer feedback, I’m guessing it applies to leaders and direct reports as well. 


      Blame threatens a person’s self-concept.  This study finds that if the feedback received is more negative than the person’s own self-concept, their performance will diminish and they will move away from what is threatening to them, and look for a new network of people who can confirm their own opinion of their performance. They will move to defend their perspective.  


      Blame erodes the relationship and does not improve performance! 



      Choose your language and focus 


      Never use the words ‘never’ or ‘always’. This is the only sentence where ‘never’ is acceptable! It is just not a true statement therefore you are starting the conversation with a lie which then drives the other person to focus on disproving your statement as opposed to listening to the actual feedback you are trying to give. 


      Focus on the behavior, not the person. If you don’t want your feedback to come across as a personal assault on someone’s character, do your best to separate what went wrong from the people involved.  


      Share the facts without blame or judgment.   

      Invite feedback from the person and really listen.  

      • Joe, I want to talk to you because I noticed that you arrived at 9:15 am every day this week. Is everything okay? 

      • Heather, I want to connect with you because I noticed that you didn’t share your great ideas at the team meetings this month. What’s up? 

      • Blair, I want to speak with you because I received the report at 5pm today and was expecting it by 5pm yesterday. What happened? 


      “Human nature dictates that it is virtually impossible to accept advice from someone unless you feel that that person understands you.” 

      - John Gottman


      Being focused on concrete data and asking for their perspective, gives you the opportunity to learn if there is something that is impacting their ability to be successful. And, they will be more open to exploring solutions if they feel heard.


      Part 2: Acknowledge their feedback and be clear on what’s next 


      Be clear on your position. Why did you give the feedback? What is the outcome you are looking for? What behavior needs to change? What action is required?  


      Even if you don’t share the same perspective on the reasons for the performance issue, it is imperative that the person feels heard and understands what needs to change moving forward so they have the opportunity to adjust.  


      • Joe, thanks for letting me know what’s been going for you. I can appreciate the recent traffic issues due to construction. In your role, it’s important for you find a solution so that you can honor the 9 am start time. What could you do? 

      • Heather, I appreciate you sharing your feedback. I agree that it can be challenging to have a voice with other strong personalities in the room and I can see that our format has made that more difficult. I’m going to implement your suggestion to have roundtable feedback because it’s a structure that better supports all voices being heard. And, please make it a focus to find other ways on your own to cut through the noise. You have great ideas and it is critical that they are heard.  

      • Blair, thanks for explaining your situation. I can understand how you were trying to get a lot of things done and there were competing priorities. When I don’t get your report on time it impacts my ability to honor commitments I made to my boss.  That particular report is a priority for us and you have my support to figure this out together.  What can we put in place to help you meet the deadline in the future? 

      Then, most importantly, wait for your employee to provide some ideas. You might find that it makes sense to brainstorm solutions on how to change the behaviour or get the desired results but let them lead. Once they have led it you might share a few ideas of your own, or not! 


      Finally, ask them to commit to the identified solution and book a time to follow up to see if what they came up with is working.  


      Feedback should strengthen relationships, not weaken them 


      Blame is always toxic! Open lines of communication are an essential element of workplace relationships.


      By delivering feedback without blaming others and working together to find solutions you will help build the other person’s self-confidence as opposed to tearing it down. 


      And, you will find it easier to build influence, enable change, and spark constructive dialogue on difficult topics. 


      Watch this short video by cognitive psychologist LeeAnn Renniger for some quick actionable tips on giving feedback. 


      What other ideas do you have for avoiding the ‘blame’ game and improving feedback delivery? 


      Unconscious perceptions govern many of the most important decisions we make and have a profound effect on the lives of many people in many ways.... Unconscious patterns can play out in ways that are so subtle they ar (4)



      Download our free Virtual Leadership Guide here:

      Creating Safety For Virtual Success