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The 5 levels of feedback

The big day has come. You have worked day and night to make sure everything is there: the logic, the structure, the visuals and the best-selling points that you have tested with your colleagues and family members, just in case. You poor your heart into every word on the way, and the audience is listening silently. Then comes the rush and the board team needs to suddenly jump to another burning topic. They promise to get back to you, but days go by without you hearing anything from them... What are you thinking at this point?

Whether we like it or not, our motivation depends to a big extent on the reactions of the others around us. Receiving feedback can be painful, but approximately 27% percent of Finnish people feel like they do not receive enough feedback at work. In another survey, when people were asked if they regularly receive feedback on their performance, almost half of the respondents answered the question negatively or neutrally (Folkman, 2006).

The inevitable conclusion is that the world needs more feedback. But as we start to offer more feedback, we need to stay mindful not only about its quantity, but also its quality. A personal eye-opener for me from almost a decade ago was to become aware of the different types – presented as levels – of feedback:


Level 1: Unconditional positive feedback, also known as praise

On this level of feedback, you just appreciate the other person for who they are, or an event based on the overall experience. This is the type of feedback that makes us feel great and for many, the best thing you can hear another person say.

  • “You are amazing!”

  • “This was brilliant!”

Pause to reflect: What is the most memorable praise you remember receiving so far? What impact did that have on you?


Level 2: Conditional positive feedback, also known as acknowledgement

Conditional positive feedback acknowledges another person for something that they have done. Acknowledgement is based on actions and behaviours that you’ve seen, heard or noticed, which distinguishes it from more general praise.

  • “You did a really wonderful job with that presentation; I especially admire the way you structured those key points, which made it really easy to follow. And when you asked those questions, they really made me think.”

Pause to reflect: What is the most memorable concrete positive feedback you remember receiving so far? What impact did that have on you?


Level 3: Conditional negative feedback, also known as constructive feedback

I am sure you know what to expect by now! Constructive feedback is always related to something that another person has done or that they could do better, and your aim is to provide them non-judgemental feedback about it. It is a skill that takes practice to get good at; here is just an example:

  • “When you presented, I noticed you using filling words like “like” and “so” repeatedly, which made it somewhat difficult for me to follow your core message.”

  • “When you arrive late to meetings you are not showing the kind of example to this team that it would need you to.”

Pause to reflect: What is the most memorable and skillfully given constructive feedback you remember receiving so far? What impact did that have on you?


Level 4: Unconditional negative feedback, also known as criticism

This is where we cross a line. Unconditional negative feedback or criticism does not give the other person a chance to change or develop, but it judges and criticizes who they are or what they did as a person. Like praise, it is also known to be general:

  • “I don’t think you are a very good presenter.”

  • “I don’t think you did a very good job.”

  • “I think you should start looking for another job.”

  • “I don’t think you can handle it.”

Pause to reflect: Think of a criticism you have received. What impact did that have on you? How could the person have offered it as constructive feedback?


Level 5: No feedback, also known as silence

How low can we go? I am not sure which one is worse - harsh criticism or no feedback at all - so I leave this one for you to decide. It does not matter whether another person is doing really well or badly, they will never hear about it. People have an innate need to be seen and acknowledged, and for many people the worst punishment is not to show them any signs of appreciation at all. No emails, no invitations to meetings, no time for talking. Only that hideous performance discussion once a year. It’s like flying in the dark! This is why some people end up leaving their jobs.

Pause to reflect: In which areas would you like to receive more feedback or acknowledgement?


Even though we talk about levels, it does not mean that level 1 is the best and the lower ones worse in their order. We all need some love and validation from the ones around us, but in terms of growth, it is the specific positive and constructive feedback that gives us information about how to develop and do better in our context. According to many studies, in order to stay motivated and engaged, people need somewhere between 3 to 7 positive comments (or strenght-based feedback) against one negative or constructive feedback. In fact, according to research, the best performing teams tend to offer more than five positive comments to every criticism because they understand the benefits (Harvey & Drolet, 2005). Looking at a normal week of yours, where do you tend to go as a feedback giver? And how about the people around you, what is your feedback culture like? What kind of feedback could you start cultivating more of?

In our next GrowthLab session (8.6.2021) we will be looking into the art of skillfully receiving and handling feedback - especially the sometimes so hurtful negative feedback - and thus tune into a real growth mindset. Book your seat here!


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