Feedback Means Many Things to Many Different People- Part 1

October 20, 2019 6:31 PM | Lovina Akowuah (Administrator)

Written by Daniel JakubowskiTalent Development Coordinator for Guardian Credit Union

Feedback means many things to many different people. The word itself can conjure up a wide array of associations. For the purposes of our discussion, we will start with the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, which list three primary uses for the noun feedback:

1. Helpful information or criticism that is given to someone to say what can be done to improve a performance, product, etc.;

2. Something (such as information or electricity) that is returned to a machine, system, or process;

3. An annoying and unwanted sound caused by signals being returned to an electronic sound system.

While straightforward enough in its definition, feedback has been misused and misinterpreted since its first use in 1919, with individuals falling into camps about which of the three should be listed first. Throughout these blog posts, we will demonstrate that by taking small, but deliberate steps in how you approach giving feedback, we can be sure that you and your teams will fall firmly into the “helpful information” camp rather than the “annoying and unwanted sound” camp.

To get to that point, this will be the first of three blog posts from SEWI-ATD that will take a closer look at feedback. Throughout these posts we will make some research-backed suggestions on how best to formulate and deliver your message for maximum impact.

Why is Feedback Important?

Communication is the first step toward creating a productive workplace. We firmly believe in creating a supportive work environment where everyone can reach their full potential, develop themselves and contribute to the Mission, Vision, and Values of the organization. However, the question to ask is how will we know if we are doing that? The answer is, by discussing it. In order for us to take stock of our goals as individuals and as an organization, we must define them and communicate their progress. Effective feedback is the first step to building that environment and opening the lines of communication between supervisors and their staff.

As we will demonstrate throughout these texts, clear and effective performance feedback when delivered properly will bring the following benefits to you and your teams:

  • Eliminates uncertainty:

o Lack of communication of performance and expected results that lead to stress and resentment and lack of security.

o There tend to be gaps in how we perceive ourselves and how we are actually performing.


  • Engagement and Continuous Improvement:

o Regular feedback means we are communicating regularly and exchanging information – engaging, as it were. We can use that information to improve and develop ourselves. Organizations with engaged workforces perform better.


  • Motivation to succeed:

o While we might not like to give feedback, negative or otherwise, the research we present in this discussion will demonstrate how selecting the right feedback message, format, and delivery strategy will motivate you and your teams to improve and succeed.

Lastly, and perhaps most crucially for us as Learning and Development Professionals, feedback is a crucial aspect of no less than four of the ten Areas of Expertise (AOEs) of the ATD Competency Model: Training Delivery, Performance Improvement, Coaching, and Change Management .

Now that we’ve made a case for the importance and benefits of feedback, we will devote the remainder of this post to a useful framework for formulating your feedback message: The Center for Creative Leadership’s Situation, Behavior, Impact (SBI) Model.

The Key to Effective Feedback: Situation, Behavior, Impact (SBI) Model

Think about the last time you gave some negative feedback (at work or at home). Did the recipient respond: “Thanks for pointing that out! I whole-heartedly agree with your assessment of me!”

Perhaps or perhaps not.

As often as not, even if we have the best intentions, the responses range from denial to defensiveness to just plain ignoring or disregarding our message. However, if we adjust our message, we can go a long way toward ensuring we are heard as we want to be.

In the most basic sense, feedback is communicating information about a person’s behavior. In order for behavior to be impacted by feedback, we must be sure that the feedback information is understood as we intend it. That involves carefully crafting our message. Getting other people to heed our advice is a challenge for everyone.

The Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) has formulated a tool for delivering quality feedback which they call SBI: Situation, Behavior, Impact. Using this tool, the CCL advises to think of feedback information in terms of these three criteria. Effective feedback can be as little as three short sentences if they are formulated effectively. We will now briefly describe the three criteria and how best to formulate those sentences.

Situation: describe the specific date, time, place, and context.

Feedback should demonstrate specific information. When delivering feedback to your staff, make sure that you are clear and specific about when and how the behavior you want to address occurs. Also, be specific. Say things like, “yesterday during opening procedures,” “October 1st at 12:00 pm during the committee meeting in conference room A,” or “This week Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.” Avoid generalities like “all the time,” “often,” “3 times,” or “last week. ”

Behavior: describe the observable behavior.

This can be easy to lose to track of without concerted efforts, but feedback should focus on behavior, not individuals. Keep to objective facts. Don’t include your opinion, judgements, or rationalizations.

Remember, you are not trying to fix anyone. You are either trying to change or encourage their behavior to improve their performance. Say what the person did: “you arrived at 9:10 when we expected you at 9:00 sharp,” or “your calculations in the report were inaccurate because you didn’t use the most recent data.”

Don’t assume the reasons for this behavior. While you may think the person arrived late because they’re careless and overslept, or their calculations were wrong because they rushed to get them done, you don’t know and can’t know for sure. If your explanation is wrong, it will undermine your message. Worse yet, the judgements could make the person more defensive than they would have been. Stick to the observable actions.

Don’t say things like “you were late again” or “you made a bunch of mistakes,” or “you rushed to meet the deadline and weren’t careful enough.” This goes the same for supportive judgements like “I remember when I was new,” or “I know traffic is bad in the morning.” It is very good to listen to the receiver’s situation and respond accordingly, but don’t water down your message of what they are doing.

Remember, the behavior can be positive too! “You gave a very strong presentation in the committee meeting yesterday,” or “you solved that customer’s problem. ”

Impact: describe how this behavior affects you, your work, or the team; answer the question “why do I care?”

Before you give any feedback, you need to decide why you care. Sadly, not everyone cares about the same things that you do. Rather than fall on your fainting couch to know that members of your team have different priorities, take this opportunity to clearly lay out exactly why this matters.

The person will need to know why this behavior is being addressed and what effect it is having. You can describe objective and measurable impact like “we just lost an important account” or “it created an unsafe situation where someone could have been injured.”

Of course, you should avoid being overly dramatic with phrases like “they’ll shut us down” or “someone will get fired.” And be careful about cause and effect, conditional statements, or blame, like “If you hadn’t said that to our client, we wouldn’t have lost their business,” as you could be opening the door to a defensive denial, or resentful ignoring.

You can also use subjective words like “upset,” “stressed,” or “worried,” but be sure you are only talking about your own feelings and not putting words in people’s mouths or blaming someone else for your own feelings. For example, “I felt stressed because we didn’t have enough people to cover the shift” or “I am worried that we will lose business if this happens regularly.”

Also, don’t forget about positive impacts! You can say things like “grateful,” “proud” or “impressed.” For example, “I was impressed when you took care of the members concerns without outside help” or “I was grateful that you completed this project ahead of schedule.”

Determining the precise impact of someone’s behavior is important. The other person is usually not aware that their actions are creating this effect. For instance, a person who tends to arrive late in the morning, might not realize how it causes stress for other members of the team, the receiver is much more likely to be motivated to change if the impact means something to them.

Feedback is most effective when it follows the SBI format. SBI format is a brief statement that focuses on the specific Situation, the objective Behaviors demonstrated (not judgements or interpretations), and the Impact of this behavior (why do I care?).

*** Part one of a three-part series*** More to follow. 

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i  Feedback. 2018. In Dictionary - Merriam-Webster for Android (Version 4.2.0) [Mobile application software]. Retrieved from http://www.learnersdictionary.com/definition/feedback.

ii Feedback. 2018. In Dictionary - Merriam-Webster for Android (Version 4.2.0)

iii Tugend, Alina. (2014, May 16). Uncertainty about jobs has a ripple effect. The New York Times. Retrieved September 21, 2018, from http://nytimes.com.

iv  Vance, Robert J. (2006). Employee engagement and commitment [White Paper]. Retrieved October 2, 2018, from Society for Human Resource Management: https://www.shrm.org/hr-today/trends-and-forecasting/special-reports-and-expert-views/Documents/Employee-Engagement-Commitment.pdf

v Gentry, William A. & Young, Stephen F. (2017). Busting myths about feedback: What leaders should know [White Paper]. Retrieved March 20, 2018, from Center for Creative Leadership: https://www.ccl.org/articles/white-papers/busting-myths-feedback-leaders-know/

vi Association for Talent Development. ATD Competency Model. Retrieved September 10, 2019, from https://www.td.org/certification/atd-competency-model

vii Gentry, William A. & Young, Stephen F. (2017).

viii Weitzel, Sloan R. (2000). Feedback that works: How to build and deliver your message. Center for Creative Leadership. ISBN (eBook) 978-1-923973-05-1

ix Weitzel, Sloan R. (2000).

x Weitzel, Sloan R. (2000).

About the Author

Dan Jakubowski is an internationally recognized Talent Development professional with over 14 years of experience in training and adult education. He has a bachelor's degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and started his career as an English language teacher to adults in job training programs. Dan has extensive training experience in Russia and in Eastern Europe. He has facilitated learning to individuals representing more than 13 countries throughout the world and counting.

Dan is currently the Talent Development Coordinator for Guardian Credit Union, a Milwaukee- based not for profit financial cooperative. He designs and delivers training and develop programs that focus on feedback, coaching, and helping all levels of the organization reach their full potential and deliver for our members. 

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