Stages of feedback – why it matters to the entrepreneur

Getting feedback is a part of everyday life. Because of the nature of man, we tend to get more negative than positive feedback. The feedback can come either through the spoken word, a look in someone’s eye, or the written word.  Our reactions to feedback is something that has been studied and documented by many a researcher or psychologist. I have decided to borrow on write up that I enjoyed and share it here[1].

But, the object of writing this, is not just to share something I find interesting. It is because entrepreneurs can learn a lot from it. A big element of managing an entity is managing people. As an owner-manager, you get to interact directly with your employees on a day to day basis. That interaction involves giving and receiving feedback on an ongoing basis.

What many entrepreneurs forget is their influence on their employees and how that influence is manifested in their reaction to feedback. 

Leaders and managers hold a special place within any group. They will consistently receive the most feedback as all members of the group/ organisation give them feedback about their ideas, management style, language, etc.  As a leader, your position in leadership is heavily influenced by how well, or how badly, you take and process feedback received.

If a manager is not good at taking feedback, his employees will 1) stop giving feedback (stunting the growth of the manager); and 2) find an alternate figure head (jeopardising the position of the manager as a leader).  It is therefore important that managers/ leaders learn to process the feedback they receive quickly by understanding WHERE they are within the stages of feedback.

In the same breath managers tend to give feedback to the most number of people.  People are as diverse as the number in the group and therefore each person will deal with feedback differently. It is the job of the manager to guide his team through the stages of feedback, so they get to ‘acceptance’ as quickly as possible. The best managers;

  • give feedback,
  • walk the employee through the stages of feedback, and
  • only stops being involved once the employee has got themselves to acceptance

The less successful managers give feedback and leave an employee to fumble through the stages, hoping the employee will eventually get to ‘acceptance’. Or they try to force the employee to get to acceptance by saying things like ‘Just accept what I am telling you and move on.’

Critically, a good manager must understand that:

  1. The stages of feedback are never sequential. One cannot say ‘My employee is annoyed right now, so the next stage is depression’ (see upcoming). A manager therefore needs to always be conscious of the signs of the different stages. A manager also needs to be aware that the receiver of feedback can return to a stage they thought was gone.
  2. Reading your employee or team member is something that comes with practice. It is important that a good manager makes an effort to practice reading people. Similarly, this practice cannot only be done in an office space. Understanding how people react in different settings makes one even better at it.
  3. Being self-aware of your ‘moods and moments’ (as I like to call them), makes a manager, that much better at engaging with staff. A manager needs to know how it feels by consciously recognising and reflecting on their emotions.  This allows them to show empathy with the employee.

So… to get to the crux of this write up. Below are the stages of feedback and my personal synopsis of what each stage looks like. I have not numbered them to avoid the temptation of making them look sequential.

Shock or Disbelief: usually the person receiving the feedback is wide-eyed and silent. In their minds, they are digging through their archives to try and understand the source of the feedback. Even if it is being given contemporaneously to the event, they will still look in shock. The person sees everything being said as negative and unnecessarily harsh.

Denial: Here, the person tries to blame everyone but themselves. They see the manager as having a chip on his shoulder ‘He has never liked me’. They believe they are being targeted or specifically being attacked. They have thoughts like ‘But James did the same thing and he did not get such feedback.’ They also believe that things are against them ‘He did not understand what I was doing or trying to do, that is why.’

Bargaining and Negotiating: The employee tries to find a middle ground. It then becomes natural to feel ‘Maybe if I gave a little back, everything will be ok.’ It can sometimes be confused with ‘Denial’ because one might say or think ‘If I agree to use the same font throughout my document, maybe he will revise his feedback about my formatting.’ As opposed to ‘Fonts is not such a big issue, I can’t believe he gave me feedback on that.’  Sometimes individuals will try to bounce off the comments by saying ‘tell me exactly what I did, so you can understand the context’.  Many people negotiate with themselves, before they go to negotiate with the manager. I have found, that in cases of significant feedback, it helps to take a break and give the person time to come up with ‘negotiation chips’ that they can use to help deal with this phase. It is also important not to mix this phase with ‘acceptance’.

Guilt: This is normally a challenging situation for a manager. Some managers tend to try and capitalise on this to entrench their position as a leader.  Others fall for the ‘sob story’ and try to revisit the feedback to soften the message. Guilt usually comes with ‘I can’t believe it, am I really that bad? How could I do that?’ or ‘Maybe this is not for me. You are probably right to say I’m no good’. Another common tool that I have seen in my years of managing people is tears (and they come from both men and women).

Anger: Anger is one that I have found people revert to more than once. I once had a staff member who seemed to move to ‘Anger’ after each of the other stages.  He would be shocked by the feedback and then get angry with me for giving the feedback. Then he would feel guilty, then get angry with the world for making him an accountant.  The tricky thing with Anger, is that many people do not want to show it, so it can consume the individual if they bottle it up.

Depression: Depression and guilt can sometimes be seen to overlap. As noted above, it may sometimes arise from bottled anger or various other things.  Depression is normally occasioned by comments like ‘Why bother?’ or subtler actions like avoiding social events, slumped shoulders, etc.

Acceptance and peace: There is always a light bulb moment when you get here. You look back at your work and you realise ‘Actually, when I make the changes, it looks beautiful. The formatting was crap!’. At this phase, individuals start to come up with solutions to remedy the event. They see a future in what they are doing as opposed to the gloom of what went wrong. As noted above, sometimes people try to negotiate to show they have accepted the feedback. You get comments like ‘Ok, tell me what you want from me?’ or ‘I accept what you are saying about the fonts, but why are you ignoring the content when you say it is a bad document?’ That is still negotiating.

So, in conclusion, practice the identification of the different stages so you can see subtle differences. In other write-ups, some of the above stages are combined because of how closely connected the behaviours are. For example, ‘denial’ and ‘bargaining’ can be said to overlap.  My preference is to keep them separate so you can deal with each on its own. I have consistently tried not to release someone when they are in ‘denial’ or ‘depression’, but sometimes take a step back when the person is ‘Negotiating’ or ‘Angry’.

I hope you find this useful!


[1] The Well Read Rabbit – Katherine Battersby ( ). All rights reserved

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