Provoking thought

The Gaslighting Elephant in the Feedback Room

The Gaslighting Elephant in the Feedback Room

If feedback is a gift, why does it keep punching us in the face?

“Your test coverage didn’t grow as much as we asked, you should care about quality more.”

“You should be be better prepared for our meeting.”

You should care enough about this company to pick up the phone when I call you at 7pm.”

Why so serious? Lighten up, you should smile more!”

I am generally perceived to be the even tempered type. You will not see me get emotional quickly, nor get defensive or shout. I’m often the calming force in the room.

Nevertheless, there’s no better way to spike my blood pressure than to give me “constructive” a.k.a. negative feedback of this type.

I know. I’m sensitive and weak. I should get over myself. I’m sure I will, any day now.

Don’t get me wrong, I see the (potential) value of constructive feedback. Nevertheless, deciding on its content and shaping it so that it actually achieves its goal (and not the opposite) is a fine art that is hard to master.

To prove my point, here’s a fun book: “Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well” Sub-title: “Even when it is off-base, unfair, poorly delivered, and frankly, you’re not in the mood.”


When you think about it: why do we feel the need to repeat this “feedback is a gift” mantra over and over again? If feedback is so obviously a gift, would it need to announce itself so explicitly, or are we just gaslighting ourselves?

Slap in the face.

“Ouch that hurts!”

“No, no, it’s a gift!”


I have a very complicated relationship with feedback that was kicked off by an event that I lovingly refer to as the “performance review from hell.”

It happened with somebody in my team about four years ago. I’ll not get into many specifics, but let me just say that while my intent with this review was good and I invested an insane amount of time in preparing it, it backfired to a degree that I’ve never experienced in my life. It escalated my (admittedly already problematic) relationship with the person in question completely and never really recovered.

“Can I also give you some feedback?” he asked at the end.


“I was always a believer in people, but then I met you.”

Feedback is a gift!

A gift!

Obviously, this experience triggered some reflection. I started questioning many of my foundational beliefs. And, sadly for you, it also means that whenever the topic comes up, I will always have a lot to say. If you would have told me ten years ago that I would get more emotional about something as mundane as feedback than about the whole tab versus spaces debate, I would have laughed in your face (as feedback).

At this critical juncture, somebody handed me a book entitled “No More Feedback” in which the author, Carol Sanford, dismisses the whole concept of feedback as a purely toxic practice. Peer feedback? Yowza! Performance reviews? Deeply flawed! Obviously, this was music to my ears — it’s not me, it’s the system!

Sanford says that feedback is based on the premise that we need other people to tell us if we are doing well, and what well means, because we cannot assess this successfully ourselves. And thus: feedback to the rescue! Other people will tell us the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.



The nasty little hick-up in this whole plan is that people are — how shall I put this delicately — human. And humans, except you of course, have flaws. Giant, enormous, shocking flaws. Many flaws we probably aren’t even aware of.

One particular group of flaws are cognitive biases. And we don’t just have one or two of those. No, we have a whole slew of them. Just scroll through this fun little list on Wikipedia and check the size of that scrollbar. Confirmation Bias. Gender Bias. Recency Bias. The Bias family is one of the biggest families you should ever meet. And while you may have met, you likely don’t know them well enough, or accepted their implications.

Nevertheless, that doesn’t stop us from being self confident enough to give y’all some raw feedback! Pow pow!

I can just hear the alarms go off with HR right now.

“What did Zef say this time?”

“What are you playing at Zef? Do you realize we put all this effort into explaining how critical feedback is? Performance reviews for the winz, and bad feedback is still better than no feedback, right?”

Probably yes, but that’s a pretty low bar. Be patient. We’re going to end up somewhere productive. I hope.

Before we do, though, let’s tear this baby down a bit more.

At this point, you may look back at the example pieces of feedback listed at the top and wonder: “well, what’s wrong with that?” So let me quickly walk through a few of them and give some (made up) other sides of the story that you may not have considered. In your defense: well, you’re human, so shame on you, but do better!

“Your test coverage didn’t grow as much as we asked, you should care about quality more.”

Hey, I care about quality a lot. I’ve always been an advocate for heavily investing in testing. It’s one of the first things I train my people on. However, I’m now in a team with the business breathing down my neck. The pressure is insane, and has been for months. If we don’t deliver this thing on time, we will all die, or so I’m told. If I estimate something to take a month, I get asked how to do it in two weeks. So, to speed things up we made the deliberate choice to rely more on manual testing, and add automated tests later. You weren’t in the room when we decided this, but this was a tough call I made with pain in my heart. Don’t care about quality... my buttocks!

You should care enough about this company to pick up the phone when I call you at 7pm.”

My previous job nearly killed me. When we moved to a remote setup I completely lost my work life balance. I had my laptop open next to me basically all the time. In the course of a year, I completely burned out. My company tried its best to fix it, but it was too late. I had to leave. And I agreed with myself and my family: never again, in the next job I’m going to do this different and create strict boundaries between work and personal life. If I don’t, I know I’ll slide right back. You’re telling me that I “don’t care”? Dude, you have no idea.

Why so serious? Lighten up, you should smile more!”

If you are a man, this feedback (beside the Dark Knight reference) may raise your eyebrows a bit. That’s a weird thing to comment on: “smiling”...

Indeed it is, unless you happen to belong to that other roughly 50% of the population: women. Receiving feedback like “smile more” and “being bossy” is causing yearly performance feedback eye rolls across the female population. It’s such a cliche that you could write a book about it. Oh wait.

As a man, would you ever, ever, think of another man as “bossy” or would you be likely to comment on their facial expression? Yet, believe it or not, women hear this all the time. Yeah, that’s funny to think about. Or perhaps, funny is not the right word. Welcome to the amazing world of Gender Bias.

One of the more interesting takes I’ve heard on feedback is that feedback often says more about the giver than the receiver.

Let me use that wisdom as an opportunity to kick “us men” while we’re already down:

“As a man coming from a culture where women for hundreds or thousands of years played the role of house wife and were expected to be likable at dinner parties, it makes me feel uncomfortable if you diverge from that deeply ingrained, generational role; so please smile more, and don’t be too assertive. Thank you!”


I love to think of myself as super progressive, objective, gender-blind, race-blind and all those other good things. I’m a good person, I mean well, honest!

However not to sound human racist, but I’m biased like crazy, and I’m sorry to say: so are you. It sucks.


My intention is usually to make this a fun, light read. However, occasionally I’ll use it as a trap. But admit it, you already read all this way, you won’t stop now, although you probably should. That would be another human flaw at work: the sunk cost fallacy. Oh we humans are so much fun. So let’s keep going.

Sorry, a phone call. I have to take this.

“Yes, yes, HR. I still plan to bring this to a constructive place. I’m plotting the path. Patience.”

The core issue with feedback of the type I referenced is the judgment part. The feedback makes a judgment of my skills, motives, about how I should behave, with extra browny points for telling me what to do about it. However, it always comes from a source (a human) who only has a sliver of the full context, and their own specific beliefs, assumptions, agenda and biases. So there’s a good chance that this judgment is off key.

For me, the big insight coming out of Nonviolent Communication is that judgment is a silent killer: if you use judgmental words in your speech, that’s the only part that people will hear.

I’ve conveniently italicized the judgmental words in the original feedback quotes. Words like “good”, “bad”, “care about”,”not prepared”, “chaotic” are all judgments, and when they’re included in a sentence, the rest of your speech turns into gray noise, however constructive it intends to be.

“Your code quality sucks, but I found two courses for you to take that will help you a lot!”

“Did you just say ‘my code sucks’?”

You may say: “Well it shouldn’t work that way, people should just get over themselves.” And of course you’re right. People may get over themselves. Perhaps controversial, but I’m a big believer in natural selection and evolution as a long term solver of many problems. Just give it a couple hundred generations.

Feel free to ignore me with these controversial ideas though, I also happen to believe that the earth is round. Like a pancake.

See? That’s a dad joke. Just trying to lighten the mood here. Don’t look so grumpy, smile a little!

While “No More Feedback” declares bankruptcy on the whole concept of feedback and suggests we just cancel the whole show, this is problematic as well, as I found.

For a while I tried to operate in this model: to go full-on feedback deprived.

It was pretty darn hard.

As I realized, as a manager, my only real output is my influence on other people. I mean, I don’t do anything myself, I just get other people to do stuff for me. Effectively, I’m an overpaid puppet master.

So then, how do I find out if anything I do has any impact? I need to somehow get signals, how else would I know if anything I do makes any difference?

What I really need is... what’s the word... feedback!


Some of this I could get from relatively quasi-objective sources, like some fancy dashboard with metrics. Managers love dashboards I hear (except me, but I’m strange). Sadly, a lot of data points I need to extract from humans directly.

So, I need to be able to turn to humans for feedback. However, I’m not expecting gold stars. I don’t really need to know how you judge my work, nor your interpretation of why you think I do what I do. What I benefit from the most is to get more data points on the difference that I’m making, the impact.

At some point I attempted to brand this type judgment-free feedback as impactback. That was just terrible. No judgment, but naming things is important.

Later I made another attempt and rebranded again, to nonviolent feedback. I like that more.

However, as I was chatting with my new best friend — ChatGPT’s new gpt-4o model that launched this week — I discovered that I didn’t actually invent anything new. Of course I didn’t.

My idea of nonviolent feedback is essentially the same thing as what’s called the SBI (Situation-Behavior-Impact) model:

  • Situation: “In the team meeting last Thursday...”
  • Behavior: “ were frequently checking your phone and not making eye contact with the speaker...”
  • Impact: “...which gave the impression that you were not interested in the discussion and it distracted others.”

Note that there’s no actual judgment on the receiver in this type of feedback, which makes it much more digestible than “You weren’t paying attention during the presentation, you should give more shits.”

Still, “SBI model” doesn’t roll of the tongue. So I’ll stick with my Nonviolent Feedback branding.

While this model perhaps isn’t a silver bullet solution to the “punch in the face” problem that a lot of feedback has, I think it’s one worth exploring and practicing.

That’s what I try to do anyway. I won’t always be successful, I know. I’m only human. I should be better.