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Feedback: The Foundation of Kind Leadership

Tomorrow's Academy

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 Our intent is to share a feedback model, the Johari window, to conceptualize the purpose of feedback. Employing the strategies of using different words, optimizing faculty strengths, and using mental contrasting techniques affords academic chairs a place to enhance the relationship between themselves and their faculty.”  



The posting below looks at a set of approaches for improving department chair- faculty communications. It is by Rebecca L. Koltz and Melissa A. Odegard-Koester, and is from The Department Chair: A Resource for Academic Administrators, Spring Vol. 30, No. 4. Copyright © 2020 Wiley Periodicals, Inc. For further information on The Department Chair, call +1 800 835 6770. For further information subscribing and  pricing, please contact Wiley Customer Service at +1 800 835 6770 or learn more at


Rick Reis

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Feedback: The Foundation of Kind Leadership

Feedback. This word often elicits a myriad of reactions. In academia, the chair is situated to provide the most feedback to faculty but often has little training in this area. Our intent is to share a feedback model, the Johari window, to conceptualize the purpose of feedback. We provide three strategies to increase receptivity to feedback: choose different words, strengths matter, and mental contrastin . These techniques, situated in neuroscience, provide some practical ways for academic chairs to implement feedback. 

Kindness in leadership does not parallel weakness. Kind leadership means that feedback is an important part of the relationship. Brené Brown stated in her book Daring to Lead (2018) that giving unclear feedback to the employees who work with us is unkind. However, the challenge is understanding how to deliver honest, kind feedback in the context of higher education. Feedback in academia is considered a tenuous issue at best, and to avoid surprises, frequent evaluation and feedback should occur. Yet rarely have department chairs been trained in how to deliver effective feedback. A 2016 study found that 53 percent of department heads consider doing faculty evaluations a stressor (Flaherty 2016). Another study about giving and receiving feedback found that giving feedback was just as anxiety producing as receiving feedback (Rock, Jones, and Weller 2019). 

Complicating the matter is that the brain’s reaction to feedback likens to a threat. The amygdala is central to one’s perception of emotion—we feel before we think. Therefore, the amygdala cannot always distinguish between threat or nonthreat, and it is common for feedback to result in either a fight, flight, or freeze response. According to Thorngren, Koltz, and Feit (2012, 4), ignoring or overlooking opportunities for feedback is not only unhelpful but also may be detrimental in some situations, thus “feedback must be honest, clear, and specific in order to promote self-reflection and professional development.” 

The Johari window model of communication was developed in the 1950s to understand ourselves, our relationship to others, and the role of feedback (see figure 1). The tool, created by Joseph Luft and Harry Ingram, was designed to increase communication and awareness. The Johari window operates using four quadrants: open, hidden, blind area, and unknown. To apply the model to leadership, the open window increases when leaders do two things: 

1. Tell. Share your goals and top priorities; otherwise employees will guess. 

Supporting the Successful Transitions of Undergraduate Students into Human Development and Family Studies Programs Adrienne L. Edwards and Gabrielle Mirelez | 26]

2. Ask for feedback. You can direct this feedback by asking what is working and what is not working. 

Thorngren et al. (2012) noted that reciprocal responsibility in feedback has a higher likelihood of success. If giving feedback elicits much anxiety, then perhaps a good place to start is on yourself. It may feel less daunting than immediately giving feedback to employees. It may seem counterintuitive, but to increase the receptivity to feedback in your department, start by asking for more feedback. This is often done in a more systemic manner, primarily through department surveys. However, it can also be done in smaller, more personal ways. For example, if a new program leader is talking with you about how difficult it is to work with veteran faculty, imagine how validating it may be to hear that you too find this difficult and have discovered a couple of ways to mitigate that feeling. If both the supervisor and the supervisee engage in the risk aspects of sharing and asking for feedback, it may be more effective and sets up the culture in the department to be one that embraces feedback. Both the chair and the faculty have a reciprocal responsibility to ask and tell to mitigate hidden and blind spots. 

Increase Department Receptivity to Feedback: When leaders commit to increasing their open windows, the likelihood of building a culture of feedback in the department is greater. To increase receptivity to feedback, it is useful to look at what does not work. The popular feedback sandwich method, where a constructive piece of feedback is “sandwiched” between two compliments, does not necessarily balance the feedback. The intention is that the two compliments reduce defensiveness; however, research suggests that it conditions people to hear negative feedback every time a positive piece of feedback is given, and it leaves employees more confused. Gottman and Silver (1999) reported that five pieces of positive feedback are required to counteract one piece of negative feedback. Ultimately, feedback should be used to inspire growth, and the following three strategies can help you to do so in your department: choose different words, strengths matter, and mental contrasting. 

Choose different words. Words are powerful and make the difference between receptivity to feedback and rejection of feedback. Infuse more positive words, as well as more curiosity, into your approach. For example, there is a difference between “I want you to do this next time” and “I wonder what would happen if …” The second attempt invites more curiosity and exploration. It is less likely to shut the person down. Essentially, try to turn your feedback into a solution-oriented conversation. 

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Strengths matter. Feedback research indicates that when we are encouraged to increase what we did right, the likelihood of putting more energy into that behavior increases (Lippincott 2018). Focus on what the employee is doing well and ask for more of that. From a neuroscience perspective, it is difficult for brains to unlearn certain behaviors; the pathway becomes too engrained due to repetition. When critical feedback is given, it increases the likelihood of a defensive response. However, if feedback is given from a strengths-based perspective, self-efficacy increases, which often results in greater work performance. Instead of stating what you do not want, try asking for more of what the person is doing well. How can the person’s strengths be used to accomplish the task at hand? 

Mental contrasting. Mental contrasting is more than positive thinking. It is a solution-focused tool used to engage relevant and significant possibilities. Mental contrasting is more than a positive thought; it is aimed at eliciting action through examining or imagining the pros and cons of the situation. In the academic realm, mental contrasting can be used when a faculty member has a teaching evaluation that is lower than expected. Mental contrasting engages conversation to widen perspective through focused inspection of the positive and negative aspects of a given situation. Positive thinking is a short-term feeling that all will be okay and might sound like this: “It is one evaluation; you will be fine.” However, mental contrasting looks at how it feels right now, what will happen next semester, and what the faculty member will be doing differently to improve the teaching evaluation. 

Continuing with this course evaluation example, the conversation might lean toward not what went wrong in the course but what could be improved. If students overall said that the course was not stimulating, then the faculty member can think about what would make the course more engaging and what teaching tools could be used to improve delivery. Mental contrasting is a slight shift away from what went to wrong toward what can be improved. 

Recommendations for Future Implementation The application of the Johari window, along with these three techniques within the feedback process, presents a positive, strengths-based[E6]  perspective regarding feedback. Academic chairs have little training in the position and have little to no training on how to deliver feedback to employees. Feedback is uncomfortable; however, ultimately it is used to expand the open area of the Johari window. While it can be difficult to engage in direct conversations, feedback does not need to be unkind. Remember Brené Brown’s words: to be clear is to be kind. 

Employing the strategies of using different words, optimizing faculty strengths, and using mental contrasting  techniques affords academic chairs a place to enhance the relationship between themselves and their faculty. Practicing giving clear feedback, and eliciting a conversation that results in the work desired by both, provides a springboard for healthy rapport and a commitment to the mission of the department and university community. Intentionality matters, and how department chairs deliver feedback can increase desirable outcomes. ▲ 


This article is based on a presentation at the 37th annual Academic Chairpersons Conference, February 5–7, 2020, Savannah, Georgia. 

Rebecca L. Koltz is head of health and human development at Montana State University. Melissa A. Odegard-Koester is chair of psychology and counseling at Southeast Missouri State University. Email: rebecca.koltz


Brown, Brené. 2018. “Clear Is Kind. Unclear Is Unkind.” Accessed January 30, 2020.

Flaherty, Colleen. 2016. “Forgotten Chairs.” Inside Higher Ed, December 1.

Gottman, John M., and Nan Silver. 1999. The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work: A Practical Guide from the Country’s Foremost Relationship Expert. New York: Three Rivers Press. 

Lippincott, Jenifer Marshall. 2018. “Our Brains Are to Blame: The Neuroscience of Feedback.” Training Industry, February 9.

Rock, David, Beth Jones, and Chris Weller. 2019. “The Hidden Leverage of Feedback.” Psychology Today. Accessed January 30, 2020. .

Thorngren, Jill M., Rebecca Koltz, and Stephen Feit. 2012. “Feedback: The Cornerstone of Academic Civility.” A