Situation-Behavior-Impact: Why Feedback Isn’t Working!

Many organizations have classes on how to provide feedback. With all this attention and training on the process, why is it not working?

Within our organizations, most of us have classes on how to provide feedback with or to each other. Supervisors in particular are given instructions on how to provide feedback – and many are actually mandated that they give feedback to their employees on a specific time schedule. (Clearly “as needed” wasn’t cutting it.)

Yet employees are constantly saying, “I don’t get any feedback! I don’t know where I stand, and I don’t know what is going on.”

I’ve worked in the offices where people aren’t giving feedback at all. And I’ve worked in offices where they are giving feedback, but it is less than effective. In fact, I’ve seen it actually become destructive or detrimental.

So with all this attention on feedback and all this training on feedback, why is it not working?!?

The problem is in the framework.

One common feedback model is known as the Situation-Behavior-Impact or SBI model. The model goes:

  • Start out with the specific when and where. (Situation)
  • Describe what the person did? (Behavior)
  • And state what happened to you/the results/the team as a result of the behavior? (Impact)

So it might sound something like:

“On Tuesday, when you interrupted me in the staff meeting, I felt like you were disrespecting me and my idea.”

(In fact, that’s one of the examples that you often hear in your internal classes!)

The SBI model is a big step up from the ‘poop sandwich’ model (where the ‘bad’ is sandwiched between two ‘good’) but the SBI model still has a couple of problems.

Problem number one is the meaning behind the words. So in the example I gave you, “during the meeting on Tuesday when you interrupted me…”, ‘interrupted’ is the meaning that someone else attached to what happened.

The label of ‘interrupted’ comes from the person giving the feedback; they are the one who attached the meaning to it. The only thing that happened is that one person was talking and another person began talking at the same time. And now someone’s knickers are in a twist.

What happened?, Your best friend probably begins talking when you’re already talking and that doesn’t get you twisted up!

Maybe you’d stop and say to your friend, “Wait a minute I wasn’t finished with my thought yet!” but it doesn’t get you all twisted up!

See, the word ‘interrupted’ is an interpretation. As we get into this Situation Behavior Impact model it is incredibly easy to insert our own interpretation into what happened – as opposed to stating what actually happened.

So if you wanted to use the SBI model, perhaps you’d tweak it to say, ‘During the staff meeting on Tuesday when you started talking while I was still talking…’

Ok, now we’ve at least got it down to behavior.

This leads us to problem number two with the SBI model, even when you are approaching it from the “I” statement of the impact.

  • I felt…
  • I thought…

As in “I felt that you were ignoring me” or “I thought you were disrespecting my idea.”

You’re putting the responsibility for your feelings, thoughts, and actions onto someone else. You’re actually pointing the finger and blaming someone else for your feeling of disrespect or disregard…for your feeling of having no voice.

In the words of Eleanor Roosevelt:

No one can make you feel inferior without your consent. 

Frankly, no one can make you feel or think anything without your consent. In the above example, you’re giving someone else permission to determine your thoughts and feelings.

And that is absolutely irresponsible on your part!

The third problem with the SBI (and the crux of the whole matter) is that when you’re thrusting ownership of your feelings, thoughts, and actions off on somebody else, the implication is that this is their problem to fix.

The SBI sends the message that I, as the feedback deliverer, am simply a victim of your misbehavior.

This sets up the “misbehaving person” as being solely responsible for fixing the problem. It creates a win/lose confrontational, adversarial relationship between the two parties.

And incidentally, since you are delivering the feedback, guess who you intend to win? You, of course!

Before we go on let’s look at the underlying reason you’re feeling the need to deliver feedback in the first place. Most people insist that they are delivering feedback out of a sincere desire to help another person improve their performance.


Unless you are providing feedback on a hard skill that has a specific right and wrong way to do it – like wiring an electrical outlet – you are not “helping someone improve.” You are simply offering your verdict on whether or not their behavior meets your standards.

Some of you may be thinking, “This is a work place. Of course I’m going to offer a verdict on whether or not someone’s behavior meets my standards. That’s my job!”

Is it? Or is it your job to ensure that your work unit meets or exceeds its objectives.

And is that more likely to happen when you and your team are relating to one another as adversaries or partners?

I vote partners.

But the question remains: How do you give feedback in a way that allows the other person to actually hear and absorb what you’re saying without making them both the problem causer AND in charge of the solution? Without setting up the adversarial relationship?

You approach the conversation from the framework of ‘I love you AND I love me.’

(Don’t anybody get wrapped around the axle about the word ‘love’ here and start telling me, “I don’t love the people in my office.” I didn’t ask you to!)

When I use the word ‘love’ I am talking about love as in “I have love and respect for another soul who is walking the planet the same time I am.” Each of us is trying to give our unique contribution to the world, and each role is equally valid as another. That’s the kind of love…and partnership…I’m talking about.

So what does the feedback sound like?

It starts out with what you appreciate about the other person – what you genuinely and honestly appreciate about them. (No faking it here.  If you cannot genuinely appreciate something about the other person, you are not yet ready to offer feedback.)

You may appreciate their enthusiasm. You can appreciate their excitement. In the example above, you might say “I appreciate your energy and your excitement. I appreciate how much you want to contribute to this project and I like hearing your groundbreaking ideas.”

So that would be the first part, the ‘I love you part.’

Then there’s the bridge to the last part, the ‘I love me’ part of delivering feedback.

No magic here, simply use the phrase ‘AND I need…’

So here is the place that you offer it:

AND I need to get my thought out before I forget it. I need to know that I got to add my contribution as well.”

Finish with a request:  “Next time, I request that you let me finish speaking before you begin.”

This format of feedback is not intended to be a complete, everything-is-perfect-now solution. It’s intended to be the opening of a conversation that builds partnership. You’re looking for a partnership to allow the relationship to be complete and move forward.

And that is what feedback was intended to be in the first place!

About the Author

Martha Wilson is a retired CIA Operations Officer, leadership instructor, transformational coach and the founder of Greatness In Government, a leadership and personal development firm that specializes in re-energizing mid-career government employees. Organizations that are struggling with complaints about bad leaders, discrimination, bullying and other symptoms of employee dissatisfaction hire her when they are ready for a fresh approach to leadership training. She also provides private coaching to high-potential government employees who have decided to assume responsibility for their own personal and professional development.