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May 24, 2022

Observation, Judgment and Feedback – #MTtalk Roundup

Sarah Harvey


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"I define connection as the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship."

Brené Brown
Sarah Harvey Mind Tools
Sarah Harvey

Observation. Judgment. Feedback.

Three separate words with three separate meanings. Yet the more I contemplate these words, the more I realize how inter-related they really are and, more importantly, how confusing they can be in a workplace context.

As I've progressed through my career and taken on different management roles, I've been given some interesting advice about observation, judgment, and feedback which I've been reflecting on. I wonder if you have received similar advice and whether you feel it has served you well – or if perhaps it's time to reject it?

Making Feedback Meaningful

To begin with, I was advised that, to give people meaningful feedback, I should try to observe them firsthand, rather than relying on what other people may tell me about their performance.

By observing what they do and how they do it for myself, I'd be able to "own" any feedback that I give. As well as this, I learned I should adopt the mindset of trying to "catch people doing the right thing," rather than trying to catch them out. So far, so good.

Reserving Judgment

Another piece of advice I'm always given is to ensure that feedback is "non-judgmental." In other words, to observe behavior and performance without labelling it as "good" or "bad," "right" or "wrong."

Instead, to feed back what I observed and, then through open discussion allow the person being observed to make their own sense of these observations and come to their own conclusions about what, if anything, they'd like to change.

I've found this approach to be highly effective in achieving behavioral change. So long as the way the feedback is given allows a safe space for reflection and personal development.

The Feedback Sandwich

The advice I hear most often is to use the "feedback sandwich" in performance-related conversations. Essentially, this is when you sandwich any negative observations between two pieces of positive ones.

The reasons given for this approach vary. Most notably that it's best to start the discussion on a positive note to help put the person at ease, before raising the trickier issue of any poor performance. Then ending on a "feel-good" note so the person doesn't go away feeling upset or demotivated. This advice I take great exception to, but I'll come back to that later.

Great Feedback Can be Transformational

I don't think many would argue with the fact that, as a manager or team member, you need to give and receive feedback that's timely, of good quality, and engaging. But giving the right amount, in the right way, at the right time can be challenging. Yet, done well, it can be absolutely transformational.

Think of a time when you received feedback that created real impact for you. What was it that made it stand out? Did it open your eyes to something you'd not noticed or were unaware of, thereby allowing you to develop your skills in a targeted way? Or was it delivered ineffectively, insensitively, or with bad intentions? In either case, I'm certain you'll remember how it made you feel.

To my mind, good feedback needs to:

  • Be timely.
  • Be specific.
  • Encourage self-awareness.
  • Build insight.
  • Be descriptive, rather than evaluative.
  • Be constructive.
  • Focus on areas of improvement.
  • Be practical.
  • Be necessary.
  • Be helpful.
  • Be kind.

How Does Feedback Relate to Observation and Judgment?

And this brings me to my contemplation about feedback, and how it relates to observation and judgment.

Observation can be described as watching in order to carry out a detailed examination of something, before analysis, diagnosis, or interpretation. Other words often associated with observation include reviewing, noticing, monitoring, considering, inspection, and scrutiny.

Judgment can be described as an opinion or estimate formed by examining and comparing, or the ability to make considered decisions and come to sensible conclusions. Words associated with judgment also include perception, reason, and shrewdness.

Feedback, in the context of the workplace, is usually described as a tool that can help people evaluate themselves and their work by hearing how others perceive them. In other words, it's "part and parcel" of managing people and teams, and usually forms part of a performance management approach.

Getting the Balance Right Can Be Tricky

But getting the balance of feedback, observation and judgment right is tricky...

  • I should observe non-judgmentally, yet elements of observing require me to review, monitor and scrutinize, all of which require some element of judgment.
  • How do I know what I should feed back based on my observations without applying some element of perception and reason (i.e. judgment)?
  • How can I give feedback on how someone is doing in their job or how well their behaviors align to company values, without making some judgment about their performance and how it matches up to what's required?

Well, here's what I've concluded...

People respond well to kind, helpful and well-intentioned feedback, be it developmental and designed to help them build their competence, or motivational and designed to build their confidence. It can be a powerful tool to focus activity and effort, and enhance performance. It's also an opportunity to provide support and empower people. And to make sure that they feel equipped and happy to carry out their jobs effectively.

Observation is impactful, but I am not convinced feedback can or should always be without judgment. We're all human and we arguably make judgments all the time, whether we're conscious of it or not. The way I approach things is to be as objective as possible and consciously reserve judgment where it's not appropriate. Instead, I try to keep the focus on the individual and what will be most helpful to them.

Oh, and about that "feedback sandwich." That’s never the way to do it. Be honest, respectful, engaging, focused, and sensitive – no sandwiches required!

Observation, Judgment and Feedback

During Friday's #MTtalk Twitter chat, we discussed the roles of observation, judgment and feedback. Here are all the questions we asked, and some of the best responses:

Q1. We observe people all the time. Can we be unbiased when doing so? How?

@eriphar It would be difficult to be unbiased as we subconsciously project our experiences and value systems. It's through observation and analysis that we remove the biases.

@ColfaxInsurance I think we can! It's a matter of training yourself to look and react without bias understanding that everyone has their own hidden struggles they're dealing with, etc.

Q2. What's the difference between observation and judgment?

@SarahH_MT Observation involves collecting information; seeing and hearing what is being said and done. Judgment implies I am putting that observation through my own belief filter to come to my own conclusion about what I have seen.

@Mind_Tools Observation: looking or watching to gather information and facts. Judgment: forming an opinion or making a decision after you've thought about something. (It doesn't mean that the thought process was unbiased or correct.)

Q3. Why do you think some people feel judged when you share what you've observed?

@SoniaH_MT Some people feel judged when sharing what we've observed because they are accustomed to receiving non-constructive criticism. Conversely, they feel judged because the respondent is including an opinion instead of just facts of what they saw.

@ZalaB_MT I think it goes back to insecurities and past experiences we've had/shared. When you feel like you can't be your self, fully and accepted as that, you can get the feeling of rejection, judgment and not being understood - accepted.

Q4. Why and how do you transition from observing to providing feedback?

@karisalowelim Depends on the context. As a manager, I owe employees constructive feedback but as a friend or something else personal, it's a situational decision.

@MikeB_MT I feel like I need to provide obvious cues that I am listening and trying to be constructive and helpful. Ask lots of questions. Make sure your non-verbals reinforce your intentions. Be clear about your goals for providing feedback and how you hope to help.

Q5. What's the difference between providing feedback and being judgmental?

@Yolande_MT Feedback: sharing an observation with the purpose of making things better and/or raising awareness. Being judgmental: sharing an observation with the purpose of shaming, blaming and labelling. It's designed to make another feel bad so you can feel better/more righteous.

@_GT_Coaching Feedback could be considered an assessment of what is, rather than judging what should be. However, there may still be judgment in feedback depending on the sender and the receiver.

Q6. Have you received badly delivered or judgmental feedback? What was the impact?

@GThakorre I lost my spirit temporarily. The impact is always negative.

@ZalaB_MT As I've mentioned a few times, my corporate times of receiving feedback were a nightmare. Paired with narcissistic leaders, it was more about the power-play and who will cave it earliest. It thought me to take it all with a grain of salt, and not personally.

Q7. How do you effectively provide feedback to a colleague, team member or supervisor?

@JulieHongNimble Be mindful of their feelings and how helpful your words will be to actually ignite improvement and change. I also try to stay aware of my tone, I like to keep it light because sometimes it's not what we say, it's how we say it.

@MarkC_Avgi Very carefully! In many ways, it is important to understand the ability or willingness of the individual to receive and accept feedback. Some people you can be fairly direct with and, with others, being direct will simply offend and hurt feelings.

Q8. When might giving feedback be a bad idea?

@Midgie_MT When the person is [in] an emotionally fragile state (upset or angry). I would wait until they had "calmed down" and could hear the feedback and actually take it in.

@DrSupriya_MT Giving feedback at a time when person is sad, tired or even hungry! The right set of mindset increases receptivity.

Q9. What has stopped you from giving feedback to someone who needed it?

@MikeB_MT The person may be in crisis. I may observe that they are already judging themselves or feel judged by others. In those cases, it's important to be present. Again, lots of listening. Otherwise, your feedback may be taken as another judgment against them.

@JennaDrei Something that has stopped me from giving feedback to someone who needs it, is the relationship I have with them. Having credibility before giving feedback creates an environment of trust and helpfulness.

Q10. What would you advise someone worried about observation, judgment and feedback?

@Dwyka_Consult Talk with your mind, but through your heart. Observe with eyes of kindness. Don't "dump" on a person if you don't want them to feel like a dumpster.

@DrKashmirM Do not waste your energy on people over whom you have no control. Worrying about others is like controlling others in a play or drama, concentrate only on your dialogues in "drama of world."

To read all the tweets, have a look at the Wakelet collection of this chat over here.

Coming Up

Have you sometimes given feedback but exaggerated just a tiny bit? Next time on #MTtalk we're going to discuss exaggeration and when we use it. In our Twitter poll this week, we'd like to know what you think about exaggeration.


Note that you will need to be a Mind Tools Club or Corporate member to see all of the resources, below, in full.

Collaborative Feedback

The Johari Window

Unfair Criticism

Managing Overconfident People

Standing Up for Your People

Getting Feedback

How to Deliver On-the-Spot Feedback

How to Be Tactful

Giving Feedback

The COIN Conversation Model

How Good Is Your Feedback?

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One comment on “Observation, Judgment and Feedback – #MTtalk Roundup”

  1. I enjoy giving and receiving good feedback. In all these years, I've never thought to compile a characteristics list for what makes GOOD feedback! Thanks, Sarah!

Managers and leaders have been using Mind Tools for over 25 years

Now, 24 million learners globally benefit from our extensive Content Library, development tools, and custom learning experiences. See how Mind Tools for Business can help develop your managers and leaders.
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