Note from the Field: Feedback

Matthew Rich-Tolsma writes about his experience with various models used for feedback, and how this is based in a send-receiver assumption and gives one person more power. He writes about the experiments he has been working on with Tomas Hancil over the past few months

My RISE colleague, Tomas Hancil, and I have been experimenting quite a lot whilst working with the topic of feedback, particularly with a number of clients who we have been working with together in our Central and Eastern European region. Many of you will recognise that feedback is a topic that many organisations are often concerned about. There is a lot written about it and people seem to think that it is an important topic for people to get their heads around, the marketplace is also flooded with models and ideas about how people should give feedback to each other. Tomas and I discovered through observation and conversation that we were both quite critical of a lot of the models and approaches that are widely taught and used in organisations to give feedback.

Central to our critique was the fact that these are often based on a sort of ‘sender-receiver’ model of communication which we felt was overly naive about the more complex responsive nature of the process of gesture and response that we observed in communication. The common approaches to feedback tended to assume that the person who was giving feedback had something to give (was right) and that the person receiving feedback need to receive it (was wrong). This means that there was limited possibility for real reflexivity - for people to pay attention to how they were contributing to patterns emerging between them and others - and the whole process tended to become quite abstract and divorced from experience, often contributing to conflict and underground patterns of resistance such as gossip.

Over a period of about six months, working with a number of clients we have run a series of experiments with feedback. We have drawn on a number of sources in our thinking and design, chief among these have been the body of work on complex responsive process of relating (in this case particularly, Patricia Shaw’s work on conversations (2002)), Kegan & Lahey’s work on deconstructive feedback (2001), Bill Torbert’s work on the four parts of speech (2004), and Brene Brown’s work on engaged feedback (2012). It is clear to us that there is still a long way for us to go with the experimentation, but we have already seen some very interesting things happening. Perhaps one of our most interesting realisations concerns our underestimation of just how challenging and frightening this topic can be for some leaders. It is increasingly clear to us that shifting patterns and building new skills in this area is something that involves months of work. As we have continued to work with groups we have seen incremental shifts in awareness (that seem to follow a semi-predictable pattern), but it is clear to us that this is not a topic which is (re)solved in a weekend workshop. We hope to publish something in the near future to give you all some greater insight into what we are doing and what we are learning. In the meanwhile I am always happy to connect and explore the topic with people who are interested.


Brown, B. (2012). Daring greatly : how the courage to be vulnerable transforms the way we live, love, parent, and lead. New York, NY: Gotham Books.

Kegan, R. & Lahey, L. (2001). How the way we talk can change the way we work : seven languages for transformation. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Shaw, P. (2002). Changing conversations in organizations : a complexity approach to change. London New York: Routledge.

Torbert, W. & Greuter, S. (2004). Action inquiry : the secret of timely and transforming leadership. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehle