The role of feedback in professional development

The Reflective Practice Guide: An interdisciplinary approach to critical reflection - Barbara Bassot 2015

The role of feedback in professional development

’There is no failure. Only feedback.’

(Robert Allen, 2012)


In this chapter we will examine the vital role of feedback in professional development. We will begin by exploring the need for feedback and why this whole area can be problematic. The role of critical friendship will be discussed along with some strategies for finding someone who will be able to carry out this role in a constructive way. This will be followed by an exploration of supervision, including some theoretical models that can help us to engage with this process to the benefit of our learning and development. The model of the Johari Window will then be introduced and the chapter will move on to look at the arguments of Eraut in relation to the important part feedback plays in critical reflection and professional effectiveness and the places where it can happen. The chapter will conclude with some final words on mentoring.

The need for feedback in professional development

It is important to consider why we need feedback and the role that it plays in our professional development. In Chapter 2 we explored the concept of the ’metaphorical mirror’ and how we view our practice in different ways by looking into different kinds of mirrors. In particular, the ideas of using ’wing mirrors’ to see things that are just out of our view and being aware that we can sometimes look at our practice using ’funfair mirrors’ both serve as pointers to the need for feedback as a vital part of the process of enabling our professional development.

Reflective activity 8.1

Think of some specific areas where you feel that some feedback would be useful for your development.

So why is feedback so important? Here are some reasons:

• It stops us from just ’navel-gazing’ which will limit our understanding of our practice.

• It prevents us from operating in some kind of vacuum.

• It helps us to see things from the perspectives of others, e.g. our colleagues, clients, managers.

• It challenges our critical thinking.

• It helps us to question our practice, including alternative approaches.

• It helps us to avoid complacency and feeling that our practice is ’good enough’.

• It prevents stagnation.

• It promotes creativity.

• It prompts deeper levels of thinking and analysis.

• It helps us to process our emotions.

• It helps us to challenge our assumptions.

• It keeps our practice ’sharp’.

• It is an opportunity for our practice to be affirmed by others.

Without feedback we risk the possibility of practising in some kind of ’bubble’ or vacuum where we only see things from our own viewpoint. This can be limiting and in some cases even damaging. Being open to feedback is vital for professional development, but it is also important to understand that not all feedback is good feedback. Poor feedback is problematic; Table 8.1 shows characteristics of good feedback and contrasts this with poor feedback.

It is clear that good feedback enhances growth and professional development, and is constructive and supportive whilst being challenging at the same time. So how can we identify good feedback when we see or hear it? Table 8.2 details some words and phrases that can act as indicators of good and poor feedback.

Good feedback is given by people who listen a lot and talk a little. Their language is clear but somewhat tentative, often phrased as an open question so that the person can respond by putting across their view of events. So, ’How did you feel about this situation?’ followed by ’Perhaps you could . . .’ as distinct from ’That obviously went wrong didn’t it?’ followed by ’You need to do better next time by doing this’. Constructive feedback always includes development points to be considered for action — often, replacing the word ’but’ with the word ’and’ can make a big difference to how feedback is received. For example, ’I thought you handled the situation quite well but you should also have . . .’ sounds negative and the person might not hear the suggestions, whereas ’I thought you handled the situation quite well and you could also consider . . .’ is more positive whilst leaving the way open for the person to think about the possible suggestions.

It is always important to examine the feedback you receive and to assess its validity to help you to make decisions about the actions you feel you need to take. Here are some criteria you could use:

• Do you respect the person who is giving you feedback?

• Do they practice and behave in a way that inspires you?

• Do they have some kind of ’axe to grind’?

• Do they have your development interests at heart?

• Do they have their own agenda?

• Are they open to feedback themselves?

Table 8.1 Feedback


Table 8.2 Good and bad feedback


Reflective activity 8.2

Now think of times when you have received some feedback. How would you describe the quality of the feedback and why?

Case study 8.1

Shirley is training to be a nurse and is finding her placement on a medical ward difficult. She is working closely with a qualified nurse, but finds that she is very critical of everything Shirley does. Shirley feels that she is continually being told off and it gets to the point where she feels that she can’t do anything right. During a particularly difficult shift, Shirley becomes upset when the nurse speaks to her in a very offhand way. Later, one of the patients seems upset and says to Shirley ’she shouldn’t speak to you like that’. The following day Shirley decides to ask the nurse at the beginning of the shift if she can give her some feedback on the things she is doing well as well as all the mistakes she is making. The nurse is surprised and says ’No one ever gives me any positive feedback, that’s why I get so discouraged’. Shirley and the nurse decide that they will give one another at least one positive feedback point each day when they do something well. This helps Shirley to build a much more positive relationship with the nurse and the placement becomes easier.

One model for structuring feedback is called the ’praise sandwich’. This begins with some positives, then the focus moves to some areas for development or things that could be improved and finishes with a summary of the positives. It is always important to remember that it is very difficult for someone to move forward in their development if they only ever receive negative messages; everyone needs positive things to build on.

Feedback given in the form of the ’praise sandwich’ can boost confidence, build someone’s self esteem and helps them to see where they could improve. It is fair to say that confidence is a very delicate and intangible thing — difficult to gain and very easy to undermine or even destroy. It is always worth remembering this whenever you are giving or receiving feedback.

The ’praise sandwich’ is not without its critics, of course. For example, its use can become obvious and as a result people can either focus on the positive and forget the criticism, or do the opposite and focus only on the praise and fail to hear any development points. If too much praise is given with too little emphasis on development, people can get the idea that everything was fine when this might not be the case. This is an easy trap to fall into if you need to give some challenging feedback to someone at any point, as it is always much easier to say positive things. If too little praise is given, the praise can be seen as tokenistic and appear superficial or even insincere, and is likely to be ignored. Feedback that involves praise followed by development points using words like ’as well as’ and ’you could develop this by . . .’ and concluding with more praise is supportive, constructive and developmental.

One final point to remember is that body language is important too, both on the part of the person who is giving feedback and for the person receiving it. Keeping your body language open will ensure that communication flows effectively both ways, and avoiding things like folding your arms and crossing your legs will show that you are ready to listen and are open to what is being said.

Case study 8.2

Tracey is training to be an English teacher and is interested in working with students with challenging behaviour. She is doing a placement in an inclusion unit in a large secondary school. At the end of each day staff in the unit meet together for a debriefing session; they discuss things that have happened during the day, how situations were handled and what can be learned for the future. Tracey finds these sessions very helpful and can see the ’praise sandwich’ being used effectively. She realises that staff are very good at being aware of what they do well. She also notices that people spend time discussing the challenging situations they have had to deal with during the day and people are keen to hear about alternative approaches that could have worked more effectively. Towards the end of the session, the Inclusion Manager asks each person to share their highlight of the day and the meeting always ends on a very positive note. Sharing different approaches that are working well helps everyone to feel that they are succeeding in their practice and overall most members of staff are well motivated in spite of the very challenging students they are working with.

The role of critical friendship

Some programmes of professional training ask people to work with a critical friend as part of their learning and development. A critical friend is someone who will help you to engage with many aspects of your development, particularly in relation to self-awareness. Working with a critical friend will help you to give and receive valuable feedback on your practice and it will be important to choose a critical friend carefully. As a term, critical friendship can appear as a contradiction in terms in that a friend would not usually be defined as someone who is critical. However, it is a true friend who will sensitively point out where we might be going wrong — someone who will let us know tactfully that we have ice cream round our mouth or broccoli in our teeth!

A good critical friend is someone who you know and can trust and who puts you at ease. They are a good listener and someone who is not afraid to pose questions in a sensitive but challenging way. They act with integrity and you can rely on them to keep the issues you discuss confidential. They are positive, encouraging and always constructive. They do not shy away from negatives or areas for development and offer critique rather than negative criticism.

The core qualities of critical friendship are as follows:

• Mutual respect.

• Trust.

• Openness.

• Honesty.

• A good relationship and rapport.

• Unconditional positive regard (Rogers, 1951).

One vital aspect of effective critical friendship is a sensitive and questioning approach. It is not the role of a critical friend to be negative or destructive, but to sensitively offer critique to help their friend to examine their approach and actions in particular situations. Using open questions that begin with ’what’, ’when’ and ’where’ are good places to start as they give the other person the opportunity to speak freely, for example, ’What made you respond in that way in that particular situation?’ Hypothetical questions can be especially useful, such as ’How would you feel if you were the client?’ and ’If this had happened in a different setting how might you have responded?’ These can help someone to see things from a different perspective.

Critical friendship can be a very effective way of giving and receiving feedback that can enhance our learning and development. It is important to spend some time thinking about who your critical friend could be and it is worth remembering that it might not be your best friend. It will be someone upon whom you can rely to be open and honest. They may not always say what you want to hear and ultimately this will be more valuable than working with someone who finds it difficult to help you to probe the more challenging aspects of your practice.

Case study 8.3

Roger is training to be a Careers Adviser and as part of his reflective practice module he is asked to work with a critical friend. The tutor is clear that in order to help clients with their career decisions it is vital that Careers Advisers have high levels of self-awareness, particularly in relation to any prejudices they might have, which can cause them to stereotype people and thereby restrict clients’ aspirations. Roger asks one of his fellow students to be his critical friend because he knows he can trust him and feels that they can both be honest with one another without being harsh. During their course their critical friendship helps Roger to consider some significant issues, particularly in relation to his fears of working with clients with disabilities. His critical friend asks what experience he has had with people with disabilities and Roger soon realises that many of his fears come from being very inexperienced in this area. Roger’s critical friend encourages him to visit a local special school as part of his placement activity and offers to discuss it with him afterwards. During the discussion they focus on what Roger has learned and how his views have changed. As a result Roger feels more confident about the possibility of working with students with additional needs in mainstream schools in the future.

The role of supervision

In some professional areas (for example counselling, social work) supervision is seen as important for two reasons. First, it enables practitioners to reflect on their practice in a regular and deep way by helping them to view things from a number of different perspectives. Second, it protects the client from practice that might not be in their best interest or could even be oppressive and damaging. Bearing in mind some of the sensitive and extremely challenging situations that, for example, a social worker might face, the idea of a safe space where practice can be discussed openly and in detail is vital in helping practitioners who find themselves faced with the evitable question, ’Did I do the right thing?’. This is particularly the case when there is no single ’right thing’ to do, but only multiple actions that could justifiably be taken.

The term supervision is a difficult one to define because this varies depending on the particular professional context. If you have access to supervision, it will be important to check the meaning of supervision within your particular work setting. This kind of supervision should not be confused with performance related supervision usually provided by a line manager. This focuses on the achievement (or otherwise) of goals and targets that have been set beforehand. One somewhat thorny issue raised within the literature of supervision is whether or not it should be done by a line manager, or whether this restricts what can then be easily discussed. Some professions would argue that this kind of supervision should be carried out by someone not involved, even by someone outside the organisation if possible. Others would argue that it can be helpful to have a manager’s perspective. In many circumstances there is simply no choice.

It is also important to understand that supervision is not always open to everyone who feels they need it or could benefit from it. In the early days of a new job, it is good to check out the possible opportunities for supervision and to consider making use of them wherever possible.

Like feedback, we cannot assume that all supervision is good supervision. Good supervisors often have many of the qualities of good teachers and good practitioners and show many of the characteristics discussed earlier in relation to good feedback. They show respect for their supervisee and demonstrate empathy. They take a questioning approach as distinct from a didactic or directive one and have finely tuned listening skills. A sense of humour is important too on both sides. It is worth remembering that supervisors need good feedback too, and this can help to build and maintain a healthy working relationship.

There are several theoretical models that explain the concept of supervision and one of the most well known is that of Proctor (1986). Proctor uses the following three terms to describe the purpose of supervision.

Normative — this involves monitoring the work of the practitioner to make sure that they are practicing effectively, competently and ethically. This includes checking that the relevant code of practice is being applied consistently and appropriately. The main question being asked from this perspective is ’Is the practitioner meeting the norms of their particular profession?’

Formative — the focus here is on professional development and the aim is to help the practitioner to develop their skills, professional knowledge and appropriate attitudes and values. This leads to a greater and deeper level of reflection and self-awareness. The main question being asked here is ’How can this practitioner develop themselves further?’

Restorative — this is sometimes referred to as supportive and is concerned with the support practitioners need when facing challenging situations. Such situations can cause stress and sometimes distress and it is important that practitioners have the opportunity to process their emotional responses (see Chapter 6). The main question being asked here is ’How can this practitioner be supported in these challenging situations?’

Effective supervision can only happen in a safe space and supervisors and supervisees both have a responsibility to ensure that it can take place effectively. The following points are worth bearing in mind:

• The setting for supervision is important. It should be comfortable, private and away from interruptions.

• A high level of trust between supervisor and supervisee needs to be built.

• The discussion is confidential — nothing is disclosed to another party without the permission of the discloser and only if they or their client are at risk of harm or are violating the law. Specific details of clients do not need to be shared to avoid bias and preconceptions.

• Be clear about why supervision is needed and who has asked for it to take place.

• Set aside some specific time and keep it free.

• Be mindful of the seating arrangements — easy chairs at the same height around a low table conveys a more relaxed equal discussion.

• Both supervisor and supervisee should spend time preparing for the session, thinking about what they wish to discuss and gain from the session. Time is precious and time spent in supervision should be time invested in professional development.

• In an initial session be sure to agree some ’ground rules’ regarding what will and will not take place during supervision. These can provide some helpful boundaries to the supervisory relationship.

• Always be sure to follow up any action that you agreed to take in the previous session.

• Be prepared to be open and to reflect at a deep level about such things as your emotions, attitudes, beliefs and values.

• Be appreciative of one another — appreciation keeps people thinking.

Case study 8.4

Shakira is training to be a social worker and has regular supervision as part of her course, which she finds very helpful. Shakira has built up a good relationship with her supervisor, who helps her to examine a wide range of issues regarding her work placements, particularly when she finds situations troubling. During the early days of meeting with her supervisor, Shakira often used the sessions to offload how she was feeling, which helped her to become less anxious about her work and to feel supported. After a while, Shakira recognised that she wanted to begin to develop her practice further and began to ask her supervisor to discuss specific situations that she was finding challenging at the time. This helped Shakira to see those aspects of her practice where she was becoming competent and those where she needed to do more work. From this, she was able to devise an informal action plan for her further development.

Reid and Westergaard (2013) argue that supervision is a parallel process. This means that the interpersonal skills used in professional practice (like empathy, congruence or genuineness and active listening) are mirrored in the supervision session by both people. Supervision is often recognised as an important process for people in the helping professions because it enriches practice and reduces stress.

Johari Window

The Johari Window was developed by Joseph Luft and Harry Ingham and is a model that can help us to gain some useful insights into how we relate to other people; this can give us greater self-awareness regarding how we communicate with others both individually and in groups.

The Johari Window is a square-shaped window with the following four panes:

1 Top left — the Open area, sometimes called the Arena. This includes the things we know about ourselves and the things others know about us. This includes such things as our skills, knowledge and behaviour, which together form our ’public history’.

2 Top right — the Blind area. This contains things that we do not know about ourselves but that others know, and things that we cannot see about ourselves but that others sometimes can. This can include simple facts, but also other more intangible and deeper things. For example, we may lack confidence in certain areas which others may be able to see, but that we cannot. We may lack self esteem and feel inadequate, but cannot always see this ourselves.

3 Bottom left — the Hidden area. This includes the things we know about ourselves but that others do not know about us. In any professional context it is important to remember that the things we disclose with others will have valid limits to them. For example, we will usually disclose more of ourselves to family and friends than to colleagues and clients.

4 Bottom right — the Unknown area. This contains all the things that we do not know about ourselves and that others do not know.

The model shows how feedback (Ask — running across the top of the square) and self-disclosure (Tell — running up and down the vertical side of the square) can help us to gain greater self-awareness. In general terms, in order to know ourselves better, we need a larger Open pane in the top left of the square. This can be achieved in two ways. First, we can ask for feedback from others, which moves the vertical line in the middle of the window across to the right, reducing our Blind area in the right hand corner. In addition, we can tell others more about ourselves, thereby moving the horizontal line down and making our Hidden area smaller. In particular, being open to receiving feedback from others and engaging with it enables us to become more aware of things that others know about us and see in us, but that we do not necessarily see in ourselves. This is particularly helpful in relation to learning about ourselves at a deeper level. Good feedback can build confidence and self esteem. Similarly, being willing to disclose to others will enable them to get to know us better and will encourage open two-way communication.

All professionals need to be open to feedback for their professional growth and development. In addition, the Johari Window model can help us in our professional relationships with those we are supporting. For example, the right amount of self-disclosure at the right time can build empathy. But it is important to remember that in any professional situation, whether in a feedback situation with a colleague or client, self-disclosure always involves a choice and you should never disclose something unless you are comfortable doing so. Indeed, in some professional settings, self-disclosure can be seen as problematic, as it could distract from the needs of the person you are supporting. So self-disclose should only be done with caution and care.

Case study 8.5

Richard is a podiatrist who enjoys building good working relationships with his clients, some of whom he sees regularly over a period of time. Richard is keen to get feedback from his clients as he finds it helps him to meet his clients’ needs more effectively. Working with one particular client has become difficult recently as the woman concerned no longer seems to want to talk to him very much during their sessions. Richard decides to ask her for some feedback to see if there is anything he can do to restore her trust. The client says that she sometimes finds the sessions painful and feels that at times he can be a bit heavy handed. As a result she has started to dread coming to the sessions and cannot wait for them to be over. Until now Richard has had no idea of this; he thanks the client for her feedback and explains how valuable her feedback is in enabling him to give the best possible care. He also talks to her about appropriate pain relief.

As discussed previously, giving and receiving feedback always involves an element of risk taking, so an atmosphere of trust is vital. It is well worth remembering that it is possible to be too open and to disclose too much. In professional practice it is right that some things remain in the Hidden area. Some things are disclosed more appropriately only in supervision or with a more experienced colleague and others only with family or close friends.

Eraut on feedback

Having established that feedback is an important vehicle for professional development, Eraut (2006), writing in the context of education management, usefully describes four different settings where feedback can occur. They are as follows:

• Immediate and in situ — this is feedback that is given during or immediately following an event and is given by a colleague or someone who witnesses it. It is usually specific and focuses on the factors that had an impact on the particular situation, which can easily be forgotten later.

• Informal conversations away from the workplace or place of study — feedback here can be planned or unplanned and relies on the learning culture with the given context.

• Mentoring and supervision — here, feedback is more formal and can also be related to performance (Eraut uses the word supervision here in the management sense of the word). The mentor or supervisor will not necessarily have direct opportunities to observe the work they have to supervise.

• Appraisal — this is more formal and less frequent feedback, which relates to the achievement of goals and objectives set previously.

Eraut is clear that receiving feedback will not always be easy and may not be a positive experience. At times it can even be distressing. But unless we are open to it we can fool ourselves into thinking that ’I did the best I could in the circumstances’ or ’I must have misunderstood what was required. If things had been clearer, I would have known what to do’. He also points to the need to process feedback and to take appropriate action on it, rather than passively receiving it. Again, this highlights the issue of choice; listening, taking some time to process the feedback and acting upon it when we feel it is justified and appropriate always involves making decisions. This could alter our perspectives and help us to begin to see ourselves and the situations we encounter differently.

Some final words about mentoring

The value of mentoring newly qualified teachers is very well known and widely researched (Heikkinen, Jokinen and Tynjälä, 2012). This often involves an ongoing relationship with someone you trust and respect and can be an excellent way of helping you to develop your practice further. In relation to mentoring, the phrase ’Get One and Be One’ is useful to remember; people in all walks of life can benefit from support from experienced colleagues, whilst experienced practitioners can also learn from the enthusiasm and ideas of people who are new to a profession. Your developing skills of facilitation and communication will equip you to be a mentor to others even if you might not have lots of experience at the moment.


In this chapter we have explored several aspects of the vital role of feedback in professional development. We have discussed what characterises good and poor feedback and the role of critical friendship. The value of supervision was explored and the model of the Johari Window presented. The chapter concluded with some insights from the work of Eraut and some final thoughts on mentoring. In the next chapter we will focus on reflecting in groups.


Allen, Robert (2012) No Such Things as Failure, NLP World. Available from Accessed 7 May 2015.

Eraut, M. (2006) ’Feedback’ in Learning in Health and Social Care, 5(3): 111—118.

Heikkinen, H.L.T., Jokinen, H and Tynjälä, P. (2012) Peer-Group Mentoring for Teacher Development, Abingdon: Routledge.

Luft, H. (1984) Group Processes: An Introduction to Group Dynamics, Mountain View, CA: Mayfield.

Proctor, B. (1986) ’Supervision: a co-operative exercise in accountability’ in A. Marken and M. Payne (eds) Enabling and Ensuring: Supervision in Practice, Leicester: Leicester National Youth Bureau/Council for Education and Training in Youth and Community Work.

Reid, H.L. and Westergaard, J. (2013) Effective Supervision for Counsellors: An Introduction, Exeter: Learning Matters.

Rogers, C. (1951) Client-Centred Therapy, London: Constable.