Feedback Works. You Just Suck at Selling It

Constructive criticism can transform an employee’s trajectory—and your organization’s culture. But no one will buy it if you don’t market the message.

By Angela Lane and Sergey Gorbatov

Here’s a simple truth: Feedback drives improvement. 

It can trigger a powerful, virtuous cycle of development: awareness, deliberate practice, positive reinforcement, course correction. Ultimately, feedback builds new, more effective performance habits.

And if the process of triggering development through feedback is part of your organization’s culture, you can even lift performance across the enterprise.

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But feedback has a problem. The mere mention of the word makes people run for the hills. Employees will hide from supervisors or call in sick following an episode of poor performance[1] just to avoid getting feedback. Why?

Between us, we have over 30 years of experience in consumer goods companies. So perhaps it’s natural that the more we thought about this issue, and the more we researched it, the more convinced we became of the root cause: Feedback has a marketing problem.

Mrs. Jones and the Four P’s

During my (Angela) time at Sara Lee Corporation, my mentor, General Manager Steve Goodey, would implore us to look at every problem through the lens of “Mrs. Jones.” 

She was the hypothetical consumer: an ordinary, reasonable person whose needs you always strive to meet. Everything starts with her. Meet her needs, and you’ll succeed.

In the world of work, who is Mrs., Ms., or Mr. Jones? An employee—any employee—whose contribution, and therefore value, would increase through improved performance. If it’s good for her, why doesn’t she buy into the idea of feedback?

If you’ve studied even an introduction to marketing, you’re well aware of the four P’s: product, price, place, and promotion. What are you selling? How much will it cost? Where can you get it? And how can you make it attractive? Could a marketing approach help us sell Mrs. Jones on the critical importance of feedback? 

The Product 

What is feedback? Let’s define our product as a useful piece of information that can lead you to improved results. What are this product’s benefits? Well, when used correctly, feedback fights self-delusion, triggers development, provides a focus for our efforts, enables improvement, prevents derailment, and may potentially even save a career. That makes it a pretty desirable product.

Despite the benefits of a product, however, marketers know its value is assessed by the receiver. As my mentor reminds me, giving your dad socks for his birthday, despite their benefits, may not hit the mark if he loves wine. Marketers spend time getting to know the consumer. 

Armed with this insight, they position the features of the brand to the consumer’s needs. The same goes with feedback. The giver must optimally craft the message, selecting the right environment and delivering the feedback to maximize the positive impact.

Every marketer knows a product’s packaging is essential. So much feedback is so poorly presented, and therefore, its value is diminished. Baffling feedback—the feedback that’s presented in ways that are either too vague or too overwhelming—may leave Mrs. Jones confused and disoriented about what to do. Poor packaging and delivery take from the value of the gift.

Like many products, if misused, feedback can have negative consequences. Brutal feedback can damage self-esteem and even cause the receiver to stop learning.  Worse, perhaps, is bogus feedback, where the truth is misrepresented to serve some purpose other than improvement. Sadly, this kind of feedback is more common than you might think[2].

So how do we prevent poor product positioning, poor packaging and delivery, or even product misuse? We surveyed business leaders on the reasons why they don’t give feedback. The number one reported reason was a lack of training. Let’s train “sellers” to provide feedback that delivers the product’s benefits, is never misused, and delivers great customer satisfaction.

The Price 

How much does feedback cost? Well, arguably, it’s free. For Mrs. Jones, it comes at literally no cost. But how about figuratively?

Of course, there’s an emotional cost. Mrs. Jones has a problem with feedback, especially if it leaves her feeling vulnerable and threatens her self-esteem.[3] But despite the emotional cost, performance is likely to increase when feedback is shared. In an experiment reported in Management Science, researchers demonstrated how sharing relative feedback led to higher performance[4]

Which price should Mrs. Jones most care about: the cost of anxiety inherent in hearing a potentially uncomfortable message, or the opportunity cost that comes from missing out on improved performance? 

As marketers, can we lower the emotional price of feedback and increase its value to Mrs. Jones? Yes. Get the seller to explain why this information is helpful, by being kind, but clear at letting us know how we’re doing, and by imparting a belief (and expectation) in our ability to positively change through development. 

This will make feedback highly valuable, and research confirms that when we perceive feedback in this way, we’ll seek out that product, irrespective of the costs involved[5]

The Place

Here’s the thing about feedback: It’s rare. Research shows us people want more[6]. But really, in the hands of an effective seller, it can be everywhere. Like the best brands, feedback can be omnipresent. Like Coke. Like Starbucks.

We see brands in “expected places,” like the point of sale. As it relates to feedback, this might be the equivalent of formal performance reviews, structured check-ins, or regular one-on-ones.

But the best brands also turn up unexpectedly, like product placement in a blockbuster movie. It’s memorable, because it isn’t necessarily expected, or subtle. It’s subliminal. Can feedback be like that? Potentially. Think: “in-the-moment” feedback in response to an observation, or an ad-hoc feedback, like a 360 survey.

Just remember: Any market can be oversaturated, and any brand can be overexposed. So, too, can feedback.

While frequent feedback is good, there’s diminishing marginal return. When feedback gets too frequent, it can cause unnecessary anxiety and diffuse focus, and performance can drop[7]. Scientists demonstrated that detailed, but infrequent feedback can product optimal performance[8]

That’s good news for the seller. You don’t have to do it all the time—but you do have to do it. That goes for when it’s expected, and especially when it isn’t.

The Promotion

If the product is fundamentally beneficial, the price is low, and the place is right, then why isn’t Mrs. Jones, well, jonesing to get more feedback? Because feedback has that pesky marketing problem.

We looked to traditional marketing for answers on how to improve our promotion efforts and which traps to avoid. Here are five routinely used marketing strategies that may just liven up your feedback sales.

Marketing Strategy #1: Reposition the Product

The phrase “let me give you some feedback” can induce fear. But the product can be repositioned and reframed.

We aren’t talking about leaders avoiding giving feedback. After all, leaders are accountable for giving feedback—it’s their job. The psychological trick we recommend is reframing, which is a powerful technique that enables us to see an issue through a different lens.

There’s a well-known joke about the power of frames. Two monks walk down the road talking about their recent one-on-ones with the Abbot. One monk complains to the other, “I asked the Abbot if I could smoke while praying, and he said no.” The other replies, “Strange. I asked if I could pray while smoking, and he said yes.”

Without changing the message, you can change the frame through which Mrs. Jones sees it. Try using phrases like, “Here’s what I believe you could do differently,” “I want to share my perspective,” or, “I’ve been thinking about how you can improve.”

Having leaders prepare and practice how they’ll frame feedback represents a great chance to reposition the product, from criticism to conversation.

Marketing Strategy #2: Rename and Advertise the Brand

It may be that your brand, not just its positioning, needs to change. Are your employees allergic to phrases like “year-end,” “mid-year,” or “performance review”? If your brand has a bad reputation, a name change could help.

We aren’t talking about being opaque. Rather, take a lesson from what the best brands do: Tell you what to expect.

One company’s midyear review process is called “Time to Talk.” That feels conversational, rather than evaluative. We refer to feedback as “fair talk.” It’s “straight talk” at Pfizer. Prudential, meanwhile, successfully piloted an initiative where employees asked for feedback. The result? Employees scheduled monthly feedback, and it didn’t appear to be a saturation point.

Talent Strategy Group’s Marc Effron calls his approach “2+2.” Leaders spend 15 minutes a month with each employee telling them two things that went well, and two things that could be done differently going forward. Brands like “2+2” because it signals simplicity. If your system has developed a reputation, rebranding can help. It can signal that the product is different and has moved on. 

So advertise. Make the new brand top of mind for Mrs. Jones. Why wouldn’t you find opportunities to promote a process that, at its core, helps employees be their best? 

Marketing Strategy #3: Reposition the Competitor

Great brands have a position, and it’s relative to the competition. This is where feedback should shine. Because the competitor, not feedback, is bad news.

Think about some of the biggest brand rivalries. Many products have directly taken on their competitors (think: the Pepsi Challenge). And in this instance, we shouldn’t fear taking on the competition head to head.

We shouldn’t hesitate to position the competitor (lack of feedback) as selfish on the part of a leader. Or insincere. Or uncaring. All those things are true if they rob us of realizing our potential.

Marketing Strategy #4: Incentivize Loyalty

More than 80 percent of consumers say they’ll stick with their brand because of the associated loyalty program. Starbucks has rewards. Amazon offers Prime Day. Can you incentivize loyalty to feedback?

Train your leaders to do three things:

  1. Give positive praise to the employee for listening to the feedback. Make it part of the process to thank employees for listening and being open. 
  2. Train leaders to give positive feedback when you see an employee trying,  even if it isn’t right or perfect. Rewarding effort has a strong motivational effect on subsequent performance[9]. You can do this, even while offering suggestions on how to build on that effort, if needed.
  3. Ensure leaders follow through on subsequent development. 

Marketing Strategy #5: Feature Product Endorsements

In marketing, there’s a concept of ingredient branding, or using an established popular brand to endorse another brand to a target group[10]. Many great brands owe their success to endorsement. When you think Nespresso, you think George Clooney. 

The same can be true for feedback. Are your leaders vocal supporters of feedback? Are they telling their development stories? Co-opting leaders as advocates can help position your feedback brand. Make leaders brand ambassadors for feedback.

In marketing, there’s a concept of ingredient branding, or using an established popular brand to endorse another brand to a target group. But select your leaders carefully. Choose those who have the attributes you want for your brand. Select high performers. Consider humble leaders. Pick leaders with a reputation for being sincere. Who’s caring, and who’s candid? It’s these leaders who can endorse your product.

And Remember: Avoid Fads

The best marketers want to build a sustainable brand. Not all brands will have the longevity of Grolsch (1650), Palmolive (1858), Danone (1919), or even Lays (1932). But short-lived fads can do a ton of damage to the promise of development through feedback. Fads signal a Mrs. Jones problem, but they rarely solve it. 

For instance, if you focus only on strengths, you may miss opportunities that truly propel a career. A purely conversational approach to feedback lacks the comprehensive multi-stakeholder perspective that a process would deliver. The danger of solely relying on technology-provided feedback is in ignoring or misinterpreting the context where the career unfolds.

As you prepare to rethink how you position, promote, and reward feedback, stay away from the gimmicks. Don’t let your performance improvement efforts be the next Pet Rock or Rubik’s Cube. Build your system on sound science and an intimate understanding of your customer, and it will last.

If recasting your efforts can improve feedback acceptance in your organization, why not drive that? You don’t need to change the essence of the product. Feedback, when delivered well, meets Mrs. Jones’s needs. Those are universal. We just need to sell it to her. 

So, what’s your feedback brand plan?

Angela Lane and Sergey Gorbatov work and write about the complex science of human performance and are the coauthors of Fair Talk: Three Steps to Powerful Feedback. Leveraging Fortune 500 experience gained across four continents, they equip leaders with practical tools for success. This article represents the authors’ personal opinions and not those of their employers or affiliated organizations.

[1] Moss, S. E., Valenzi, E. R., & Taggart, W. (2003). Are You Hiding from Your Boss? The Development of a Taxonomy and Instrument to Assess the Feedback Management Behaviors of Good and Bad Performers. Journal of Management29(4), 487–510.

[2] Bear, J. B., Cushenbery, L., London, M., & Sherman, G. D. (2017). Performance feedback, power retention, and the gender gap in leadership. The Leadership Quarterly28(6), 721–740.

[3] Research shows that such feedback can potentially reduce performance.   Kluger, A. N., & DeNisi, A. (1996). The effects of feedback interventions on performance: A historical review, a meta-analysis, and a preliminary feedback intervention theory. Psychological Bulletin119(2), 254–284.

[4] Kuhnen, C. M., & Tymula, A. (2012). Feedback, Self-Esteem, and Performance in Organizations. Management Science58(1), 94–113.

[5] Hays, J. C., & Williams, J. R. (2011). Testing multiple motives in feedback seeking: The interaction of instrumentality and self protection motives. Journal of Vocational Behavior79(2), 496–504.

[6] Lane, A. M., & Gorbatov, S. (2018). Where Has All the Feedback Gone? Talent Quarterly20(Winter), 54–59. Retrieved from

[7] Lam, C. F., DeRue, D. S., Karam, E. P., & Hollenbeck, J. R. (2011). The impact of feedback frequency on learning and task performance: Challenging the “more is better” assumption. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes116(2), 217–228.

[8] CASAS-ARCE, P., LOURENÇO, S. M., & MARTÍNEZ-JEREZ, F. A. (2017). The Performance Effect of Feedback Frequency and Detail: Evidence from a Field Experiment in Customer Satisfaction. Journal of Accounting Research55(5), 1051–1088.

[9] Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. Random House Incorporated.

[10] Kotler, P., & Pfoertsch, W. (2010). Ingredient Branding. In Ingredient Branding: Making the Invisible Visible.