by Paul Matthews

What is feedback?

The first place to start is the dictionary.


The return of information that is provided following an activity or process


The process in which part of the output of a system is returned to its input in order to regulate its further output.

In fact, feedback is ubiquitous. We are receiving feedback at every moment we are awake. If you reach to pick up a cup, how do you know that your hand is close enough to close it on the cup? Now reach out to pick up the cup while keeping your eyes closed. What happens? In order to pick up the cup, you used your senses to provide information about the progress of the task, and to modify what you were doing in order to complete the task successfully.

In order to do anything at all we need feedback, even something as natural to us as walking requires lots of feedback from the balance mechanisms in our inner ear as well as our other senses. The more complex the task, and the less we have done it before, the greater the need for ongoing and comprehensive feedback and progress information.

It becomes obvious on thinking about it that the quality of the available feedback has a large bearing on our ability to complete a task. When picking up the cup, for example, visual feedback is far superior to touch feedback. We know how to utilise feedback; we are all adept at supplying ourselves with feedback from our environment in order to do things. We would simply not survive if this was not so.

Other people

One source of feedback that we all use, when available, is other people. We notice how other people react to what we are doing. Their reaction might be positive, negative, planned or spontaneous. Whatever their response, or lack of it, we will draw conclusions about what that response means. We are then likely to modify our behaviour based on those conclusions, especially if we consider the other person credible. Feedback drives us to change.

Now, you may already have spotted the ‘gotcha’ in this. We modify our behaviour based on the conclusions we draw about someone else’s behaviour. How do we know our conclusions are correct? How do we know for sure that their behaviour was in response to ours? Maybe that smile was a sign of approval for our actions, or maybe our actions just reminded them of something funny, or maybe they were daydreaming about a joke from the pub last night and didn’t even notice what we were doing.


Most feedback we get from other people is unintentional: that is, they don’t have a planned outcome in mind. They just react, and we then react. It is an informal process, but nonetheless very powerful. As a manager, you need to be conscious of this power, and to be aware of what your body language and behaviour might be saying to people, because they will use it as feedback. To improve your informal feedback to others, you should be consistent in your approach and behaviour. One of the best tools for developing good ‘habits’ within yourself is through increasing your Emotional Intelligence.


A small proportion of the feedback we receive from other people is given by them on purpose. And this kind of personal feedback can be incredibly useful. In this topic, we will focus on feedback given by someone on purpose.

In an ideal world, the other person gives us valid and useful information about what we are doing with our best interests in mind. In a less-than-ideal world, we sometimes get criticism.


We all know about criticism and the damage it can do to us – to our confidence and self esteem. But what is criticism and how is it different to feedback?

The simplest way to tell the difference is to consider who the comments will benefit. Are they for the benefit of the giver or the receiver?

Feedback is for the benefit of the receiver. Its purpose is to help them grow and develop, and reinforce positive behaviour or actions. It is designed to help and support, and focuses on how to learn from the situation in order to move forward.


If you are going to give feedback, stop and consider who the feedback will benefit. Who is it for?

On the other hand, criticism always benefits the giver. In most cases, it is done to make the giver feel in some way superior to the receiver. It is often negative and judgmental. It is in many cases subjective rather than objective and it is usually destructive. It is most likely to make the recipient feel defensive, angry or hurt – emotions which stifle learning and growth. Criticism is also often used to apportion blame and to offload negative feelings.

Types of feedback

Purposeful feedback can be divided into two types:

  • Positive feedback
  • Constructive feedback.

Positive feedback

Positive feedback is also known as ‘praise’. This type of feedback is mainly used as a motivator. It recognises the good work that someone has done and rewards them for it. Positive feedback can sometimes be known as either ‘motivational feedback’ or ‘reinforcement feedback’, since it is designed to encourage a person to continue with a specific kind of behaviour or approach.

Constructive feedback

Not to alter one’s faults is to be faulty indeed.


Constructive feedback is letting someone know that they did not do something in an appropriate way, or that they did something incorrectly. The message is constructive and helps the individual to improve, rather than just being a message about what they shouldn’t do. Constructive feedback includes information to enable the individual to improve their behaviour or the way in which they do something.

Constructive feedback helps the person develop better and more useful behaviours, hence it is also known as ‘formative feedback’, ‘developmental feedback’ or ‘redirection’.