Critical Feedback: Four Approaches and One Twist

Published on May 2, 2024, filed under and (RSS feed for all categories).

Feedback is important so that we can learn and improve. Critical feedback is important to expose, validate, and address areas of growth and development.

In my world—like you, I can’t offer any others—, there are four general approaches to critical feedback:

Approach Timing Type Effect
Direct feedback Short-term Constructive Valuing the relationship; allowing both sides to learn
Indirect feedback (behind the back) Short-term Destructive Escalating; breaching trust; threatening relationship
Deferred feedback * Mid- or long-term Neutral Guarding the relationship
Withheld feedback Never Neutral or destructive Questioning or devaluing the relationship; depriving the other (and oneself) of a chance to learn

This overview is simplified, but I think it covers the main scenarios.

What we want in a feedback culture is direct feedback: It’s not delayed, its spirit is constructive, and everyone can learn.

What we observe much of the time, I can only speculate: It depends on the individual and the organization. My guess is that withheld feedback, neutral flavor, is by far the most common. People have their thoughts but don’t share them, without any particular intentions.

The Twist

What makes this interesting to sketch and speculate on?

In all cases, we are responsible for the (non-)delivery of the feedback. Not the other person. Ourselves.

This should be obvious for two reasons:

  1. The recipient may be ignorant of (or unclear about) whatever it is we’re critical about. It’s unjust to put it on them if nothing improves.

  2. The recipient may have good reasons for what we’re critical about. It’s unjust to put our own ignorance on them.

Here is again why this is important:

  1. It’s our responsibility where relationship and outcomes go. Not the other’s. â€  If we provide direct feedback, both can improve. If we go behind them, both likely tank. If we wait to give feedback, or perhaps never end up doing so, we can’t act surprised if nothing changes.

  2. It’s our choice. Constructive, neutral, destructive. To learn—together—, or not to learn.

Four approaches, one twist, one view, on critical feedback.

* This is a different feedback type to me as it comes with a conscious decision not to provide feedback at the time. If feedback is shared, deferred feedback should, given it’s protective and deliberate nature, morph into direct feedback, though it’s possible it may be given indirectly and therefore end up being destructive.

† It’s more complicated than that: The other is also responsible for the relationship. However, too often, this “the other is also responsible” seems to confuse rather than illuminate us. I believe it’s less ambiguous and more effective to be be clear about and assume our own responsibility.

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About Me

Jens Oliver Meiert, on September 30, 2021.

I’m Jens, and I’m an engineering lead and author. I’ve worked as a technical lead for companies like Google and as an engineering manager for companies like Miro, I’m close to W3C and WHATWG, and I write and review books for O’Reilly and Frontend Dogma.

With my current move to Spain, I’m open to a new remote frontend leadership position. Feel free to review and refer my CV or LinkedIn profile.

I love trying things, not only in web development, but also in other areas like philosophy. Here on I share some of my views and experiences.