A virtuous cycle or a vicious cycle? The choice is yours.

 I had just started a new job, and was on my first “solo” presentation after training. At the time, I had gone through some tremendous upheavals in my life, and was still a little shaky in my role. The content was still very new to me, and I hadn’t yet learned the best ways to say things about our products that would lead to easy understanding and help me build confidence as a leader in this situation.

On this day, I was supporting a salesperson in a midwestern state, and before I had even gotten through my introductions to the audience, the salesperson waved her arms to get my attention. Not only did it break my concentration from the very beginning, but she then proceeded to give me the “throat cutting” movement to stop me from talking any more about my background.

As you might expect with that kind of beginning, the rest of the presentation was less than stellar, and really cracked my confidence. The salesperson obviously had some sort of expectation for me that had not been communicated to me, and I had no mental model to understand what she might have wanted. I had prepared my presentation, but after her actions had derailed my presentation, I never felt like I could recover.

After the presentation, she and I walked together out to my car and she chewed me out once we were out of earshot of the participants. It was humiliating and infuriating, and entirely unprofessional. As a new employee to the company, I was left wondering if this was the right job fit for me.

Once back to the airport, I called my boss and explained, in detail, what had happened. He was supportive, but the whole experience left me quite shaken. Eventually, the salesperson was called to task for the way she had treated me, but I had to reflect deeply on the source of the feedback and how I should have reacted.

Was I doing my best in my role? Was I being given valid feedback? What should I have done differently?

There’s good feedback and then there’s the OTHER kind of feedback…

If you, like me, have been in a situation where you have received good feedback, then you know how powerful and motivating an evaluation of your work can be. On the other hand, there is the other kind of feedback, usually interpreted as criticism. The results of feedback are largely determined by several factors: the sender of the feedback, the receiver of the feedback, and the perceptions about the events leading to the feedback.

Virtuous Cycles
There is a pattern of feedback that builds competence and helps the recipient(s) of the feedback develop and grow. This feedback is usually couched in terms like “coaching” or “mentoring,” full of warm and comforting feelings. Usually, it is a balance of tough feedback that incorporates the existing state of the recipient’s perception into the style and approach for giving feedback. However, the longer-term impact of feedback that works like this creates a feedback loop that is continually positive and often very reinforcing. That loop is called a virtuous cycle, implying a desirable cycle of improvements.

The real challenge of virtuous cycles is that they must be reinforced and demonstrated with repetition in a variety of situations. You can’t give supportive feedback to one employee and (virtually) turn to another with a snarl for making a small mistake. Virtuous cycles depend on the deeper belief that your employees are doing what they think is right, a belief that should be evident in all of your interactions.

Vicious Cycles
On the other side of the approaches is the vicious cycle, or the types of feedback that build resentment, mistrust, and, eventually, dysfunction. You, as a leader, can choose to be critical or resentful of your team members, or believe that they are acting inappropriately. If you approach the situation with the mentality that the employee has incorrectly or improperly completed their tasks with malice to not do their work properly, then that will show in your feedback.

Unfortunately, some teams never quite recover from vicious feedback. Criticism without empathy or compassion leads to loss of trust, truly malicious behaviors, and future challenges to effective feedback. Even if it is with one employee, a vicious cycle can envelope a team and create larger team performance problems (Zimmerman et al., 2020).

Fair or Right?
I have worked with many managers, whether bosses, peers, or employees, and there have been a few that really struggled to control their egos as leaders. In the case of the salesperson I was working with before, the salesperson created a vicious cycle that eventually impacted how my entire team worked with her for several years. We could have worked collaboratively to make a difficult situation better, but her anger and treatment of me was inappropriate.

As a leader, you sometimes have to make the choice to be fair rather than assert your dominance as the leader. This is a commentary on the need that people have to be in charge, to control situations, and generally operate without considering other people’s viewpoints or emotional states. Leaders that demonstrate virtuous cycle development don’t give any less feedback, but they do deliver feedback in a way that preserves the dignity of the recipient and helps the team member understand why a different approach is needed.

Feedback is the mechanism for growth. Giving feedback is the right thing to do, but giving it with the other person’s perspective in mind is the fair thing to do. You can be both fair and right as a leader.

Does Your Feedback Really Matter
As a distance leader, you may think that your feedback is not being perceived or used in ways that you expect. It really comes down to the results that you wish to see. One thing is for certain: if you give feedback in ways that erode trust and positive expectations between you and your employees, the situation will not improve for long.

On the other hand, reaching out to your employees to give them feedback can be a great trust-building experience for both of you. Hearing your team member’s rationale for making their decisions can help you determine where more guidance is needed, as well as give you an opportunity to uncover your perspectives and share your ideas. As a leader, you bring problem-solving perspectives to the conversation that may be based on experience or skills your employee may not have. In those cases, your feedback is critical.

The Process

So how do you develop a “virtuous cycle” approach to feedback? It’s easier than you think but it also requires you to consider your own motivations for giving feedback in the first place. That is really just a fancy way of saying that this may take a little work, but the work you put into giving effective and meaningful feedback will result in long-term performance improvements for your team. Here are some steps that might help:

  • Check your ego. To really develop a virtuous cycle, a leader should first examine those self-thoughts about the team. Do you feel that you are better than your team members? Do you think they should know how to do their work and not be so bothersome? Do you feel that your work is “above” theirs? If these statements apply to you, please reframe your perception of your workers, because it probably is evident in the feedback you give your team.
  • Choose your medium. As a distance leader, think carefully about the medium you choose for giving feedback. More sensitive or improvement-oriented feedback should probably be completed in a more high-touch environment, either in-person or via videoconference. Having a phone call should be the bare minimum. Sending feedback via email will probably not be perceived the same way it was written.
  • Consider actions, not emotions. When deciding focus points for feedback, emphasize employee actions, not emotional states. For example, “You seemed angry” is going to be perceived differently than “You seemed angry and a customer complained to me about it.” Yes, emotions are part of work (…and of being human, actually. I bet that something you didn’t know!) but they should always be emphasized in light of the actions of the team member.
  • Focus on fairness: what was the other person thinking? Being fair about behaviors and actions is a hallmark of a good leader. Understanding that some people overreact, that some people are under a great deal of stress, and that anyone can have a bad day should be some of the consideration that you give your team member. Helping your employee understand what is expected through feedback by first trying to understand the team member’s rationale helps build a virtuous cycle.
  • Describe concretely what you want – use examples if necessary. Explaining and showing your employees what you want is better than expecting employees to instinctively know what you expect. As a distance leader, helping employees understand your expectations over the phone or videoconferencing is a powerful technique for avoiding future miscommunications as well.

The Results and Giving Feedback as a Distance Leader

While employee feedback is a term used with wild abandon for a variety of interactions with employees, distance leadership presents its own challenges to ensure feedback is received and acted upon properly. Do you have any strategies for giving feedback as a distance leader?

Comment with your answers below!


I recently received a copy of this brand-new book and highly recommend it: Transforming Teamwork: Cultivating Collaborative Cultures by Diane Zimmerman, James Roussin, and Robert Garmston. While it is set in the K-12 school culture, the concepts presented are applicable to business environments. The following affiliate link will allow you to get a copy from Amazon.com. Please note that I do receive a small commission at no cost to you.



Zimmerman, D., Roussin, J., & Garmston, R. (2020). Transforming teamwork: Cultivating collaborative cultures. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin. 

Photo credit: Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash