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Feedback: The Breakfast of Champions

On a recent Sunday I went out with my family for breakfast at a pancake house. We were seated at a table next to a family made up of a mother, a father, a young boy in a booster chair, and an infant in the mother’s lap.

Before we had even opened our menus, we heard the parents make these remarks loudly to the boy, whom I will call Joey:

  • Joey, don’t take such small bites. Take big bites, Joey.
  • Joey, sit up straight in your chair. Don’t slouch.
  • Joey, don’t hold your fork with a limp wrist.

I can’t tell you more about the commentary on Joey because I discreetly asked the host to move us to table in a different part of the restaurant. I wanted to have a pleasant meal, and I couldn’t stand hearing more feedback on Joey’s behavior.

Management guru Ken Blanchard said, “Feedback is the breakfast of champions.” I don’t think Joey would agree. My moments near his family made feedback seem like the breakfast of losers. It was all negative and hard to hear, even for me. Imagine how Joey felt.

Feedback needs to be constructive—to build up the person who receives it.

Here’s the business writing angle:

If you give feedback to employees in writing, think about your audience as you write. Less experienced employees need to know what they are doing right as well as what they need to do better. Even the newest employee is doing something right, whether it is simply reporting to work on time, smiling, or avoiding personal calls and text messages. Those basic behaviors are hugely important, and they need to be praised.

I think of Joey, who needed to know it was terrific that he was talking softly and eating his breakfast rather than tossing it at his baby sibling.

Very experienced employees may not need to know what they are doing well (because they already know that), but they need their positive performance recognized in writing, along with suggestions for improvement. They need acknowledgment for their hard work and successes, not just in the form of a bonus for goals achieved. Getting positive feedback simply feels good!

If there was an “experienced performer” in our breakfast situation, it might have been Joey’s father. His mother might have told Joey’s father she appreciated his willingness to go out for Sunday breakfast, especially when it was his only day to sleep in. He might have already known he was a good guy for doing it but appreciated hearing it from his wife.

They say a healthy breakfast builds strong bodies. Well, balanced feedback builds good performance and better relationships.

I am not sure pancakes, while delightfully delicious, make a healthy breakfast. But I am sure about balanced feedback.

Do my remarks inspire you to comment about giving or getting written feedback—or to go out for pancakes?


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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

9 comments on “Feedback: The Breakfast of Champions”

  • Dear Lynn,

    Thanks for the informative post about giving feedback.

    I also believe that people should be proactive in taking feedback (possibly informally) about their work and habits.

    Feedback not only helps in knowing oneself, but can also uncover undercurrents in relationships and feelings about specific instances.

    – Gaurav

  • Hi, Gaurav. Thank you for the good reminder about taking feedback. Asking for feedback is wise, with specific questions getting the best feedback. “How am I doing?” is likely to elicit a vague answer, whereas “What could I have done better on the presentation?” is likely to draw a thoughtful one.

    I visited your blog and found it very engaging. I wish I spoke your language, so I could find out what your family members are saying! But sometimes I can read between the lines.

    I am glad you stopped by.


  • MMM… pancakes!

    It’s an interesting question that’s raised, and I agree with you Lynn that it’s more about a balance rather than a polar answer to the question.

    I for one was raised like Joey (only I was told to take smaller bites!) and I think I’m fairly successful (for a 26-year old, 7 years into a great career). I see some of my peers who were treated less strictly, floundering without direction or ambition.

    But of course, I also appreciate the benefits of the “other side” — so I second your thoughts about the balance that needs to be reached.

    And as always, thanks for the blog, it is greatly appreciated!

  • I feel sorry for Joey, but, like Christine, maybe he will thrive on order. Or he may turn out to be rebellious! Each child has their own way. I’m reminded of a story Shirley Jackson wrote about her two oldest children when they were misbehaving at a restaurant. She told her son that she would reprimand him in the restaurant where everyone could watch, and she told her daughter she would take her to the rest room for punishment, where no one could watch.

    Lynn, thanks for commenting on Gaurav’s blog, also. That encouraged me to have a look. Gaurav, your writing is very compelling – I shall be a frequent visitor!

  • I am a bit delayed because I have been out of town; however, I would like to answer your question, Lynn. Your comments did indeed inspire me to give better feedback in the ofice. As a matter of fact, I removed a note left for another and replaced it with another written with a much more positive tone. Nilima’s story was a great head’s up for me as well, and very timely as I face a major challenge with my college student. Much thanks to both of you.

  • Maureen, it is gratifying that my blog post, along with Nilima’s story, inspired you to take action. Reading your comment has made my day. Thank you!

    Good luck applying the principles to your college student.


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