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  • Gail Townsend

To create a feedback-rich culture, start with vulnerability

In healthy work cultures, feedback is not an "event." It's one part of a continuous cycle of communication and learning. And that cycle starts with vulnerability. In this first installment of a two-part series on feedback, organizational design specialist Dr. Gail Townsend unpacks the various parts in this cycle and provides tips for creating a culture of feedback.

Two people sit on tree stumps by a lake, talking.

I have been fortunate enough to have people in my life who have provided feedback and contributed to my learning. They helped me uncover blind spots. I felt very good about the experience. Those individuals are my feedback role models. I fully trust these individuals. Of course, I have experienced opposite situations, too. There was not a lot of learning in the situations where I received feedback in an aggressive, judging manner. In this two-part series, we’ll explore best practices for giving and receiving feedback, and ultimately creating a culture of openness and learning.

Vulnerability, Feedback, Awareness, Learning, Choice, Change: How do these synergistic words create a learning environment? If we can be vulnerable and have the courage to respectfully give and receive feedback, it creates increased awareness, which leads to new or reinforced learning, which opens the pathway to informed choice, which then provides an avenue to change! It all begins with vulnerability. Imagine the possibilities for individual and collective learning!

American psychologist M. Scott Peck, author of The Road Less Traveled, wrote, “There can be no vulnerability without risk; there can be no community without vulnerability…; there can be no peace, and ultimately no life, without community.” What are the behavioral considerations we can embrace to create a personal and professional community of vulnerability? How can we create an environment of vulnerability? Who will go first to create this environment? It can feel especially risky for the individual who makes the choice to go first in either non-judgmental sending and/or non-defensive receiving of feedback. This requires vulnerability and acceptance of the reality that one may be incorrect in individual perceptions of the situation.

This essay will focus on interdependencies that exist between vulnerability, feedback, awareness, learning, choice, and change and share some insights to consider as we create meaningful relationships personally and professionally. I will focus on feedback and continuous learning in challenging situations. Of course, remember to catch people doing something right, too, and then tell them and others about it! Those situations are usually easier to address.

Overhead close up of two people's hands at they have coffee together.

Understanding the terms

Let’s begin with a few definitions:

Vulnerability: The Oxford dictionary defines vulnerability as “a state of emotional exposure that comes with a degree of uncertainty.” Learning how to be vulnerable involves a willingness to accept the emotional risk that comes from being open and willing to love and be loved. A fear of vulnerability is a very common fear.

Feedback: How can we create a feedback-rich culture where individuals feel free, safe, and encouraged to share and receive feedback? Feedback cultures exist where people are empowered to communicate their perspectives of situations without fear of retribution. The fear is real and can be influenced by past experiences as either the sender or receiver of feedback. Feedback can be defined as information about past behavior, delivered in the present, which may influence future behavior.

Choice: The Oxford dictionary defines choice as “The act of choosing between two or more possibilities.” Sounds straightforward. However, any of us who have made conscious choices have learned that choice making is not always easy. Often our choices are unconscious and reactive, rather than intentional.

Consider the connections between vulnerability, feedback, self-awareness, learning, intentional choice, and change. If you are paying attention, you become further informed, which leads to increased learning and insight—which then opens the door to the possibilities that intentional choice and behavior changes can bring.

Sound simple? Not so much. We are human, we have legitimate fears, and these fears can inhibit our ability to be vulnerable. Intentional choice and change all begin with vulnerability. Possibilities begin with being vulnerable and taking the risk to initiate curious feedback (better stated as a statement of unmet needs) and the reciprocal side is to openly and non-defensively receive feedback as being reality from the perspective of the sender.

Two people at dusk, sitting together talking.

Creating a culture of feedback

The creation of a feedback culture means creating an environment where individuals feel free, safe, and encouraged to share and receive feedback. Feedback cultures can exist within our families, within circles of friends, in a workplace, or anywhere individuals are empowered to communicate perspectives of their experiences without fear of retribution.

How can we increase vulnerability to create a feedback culture where individuals are open, authentic, transparent, caring, respectful, and non-judgmental? Some research indicates that there are four elements to creating this environment. These are:

  1. Safety and trust. Consider making intentional efforts to understand one another as human beings—not just work peers. Share stories. Share experiences related to experiences about diversity, belonging, and inclusion. Share emotions. Life is not just logical. It is emotional and psychological. Convey emotional experiences with one another and include the feelings associated with those experiences. This can build trust and safety though being vulnerable and conveying emotions that others will not know unless we explicitly share them. We are vulnerable when we open a portion of ourselves to others. They do not know for sure what emotions we are experiencing unless we share these with them. (On that note, it’s okay to say “no” when someone asks if they can provide us with feedback. It just may not be the right time to embark into a vulnerable conversation. It is okay to delay the discovery and deep understanding dialogue. It is important that all are ready to be involved to fully engage in the discovery, open, non-blameful dialogue.)

  2. Balance. Feedback doesn’t always need to be negative! Let some of your feedback be purely positive. Remember to catch people doing something right and tell them about it! Reinforce positive behaviors. We cannot assume that others know what we appreciate about them.

  3. Normalcy: Feedback is not an event. In emotionally healthy environments, feedback is an ongoing process so that situations that create unmet needs for others do not build up and the “straw that broke the camel’s back” situations are avoided. What can each of us do to make these dialogues a normal part of everyday interactions

  4. Personal accountability: Be sure to let everyone know that getting better at giving and receiving feedback is something you’re continually working on. Be proactive in asking for feedback, not just waiting for it.

Maya Angelou said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

When individuals take the risk to be vulnerable and choose to send and (openly, non-defensively) receive feedback, relationships are strengthened because of the sharing of emotions and vulnerabilities. It can be frightening to open ourselves to another through the sharing of our emotions. When we are open with others, we risk being hurt because of the unknown factor of how others will respond and react to our efforts of vulnerable communication. Most of us fear being hurt. But if we communicate with care as both senders and receivers, we increase the chances of leaving people in a psychologically safe place. Let’s learn from Maya Angelou.

Ready for the next step? Read Part 2 of this series, "The Art of Giving and Receiving Feedback."


Failure to Listen, Maya Angelou, Maya Angelou: I’ve Learned – Failure To Listen

Building a Feedback Rich Culture, Harvard Business Review, Ed Batista

Leadership Effectiveness Training, Thomas Gordon

Vulnerability is not a weakness, Sandra Parker, Psychology Today. Vulnerability is not a weakness

The Different Drum - Community Making and Peace, M. Scott Peck

What Did You Say? The Art of Giving and Receiving Feedback, Charles N. Seashore, Edith W. Seashore, Gerald M. Weinberg


Gail Townsend holds a Masters degree in Organization Development from American University, a Masters degree in Human Development, and a Doctorate degree in Human and Organization Systems from Fielding Graduate University. She contributed as a global OD specialist, as a global HR business partner, and as an internal educator while employed at Gore. In addition to being a business and cultural advisor at MeaningSphere, she is also adjunct faculty at the University of Delaware and at Colorado State University, Global. Her areas of expertise are in leading change; leadership development; team effectiveness; diversity, equity and inclusion; individual development and coaching; communication skills, intentional use of self; and, as an educator in skill development in these areas. Most importantly, she is the mother of two wonderful daughters and grandmother to four beautiful grandchildren.

Photo credit: Unsplash


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