January 29, 2019

The Icarus approach to feedback

A guest post by clinical psychologist and consultant Mira Brancu, Ph.D

Have you ever found it difficult to give someone feedback about a problem that might be a little sensitive or that you weren’t sure would be received well?

Sure, we all have. Unfortunately, the typical techniques, such as the “compliment sandwich,” come off so mechanical or overused that they end up at best awkward and at worst backfiring.

The best supervisors learn ways to provide feedback that is genuine, natural and — most importantly — effective.

If you are new to supervising others or have been supervising for a while but haven’t figured out how to provide feedback in a way that is meaningful, productive and well-received, this post is for you.

A model for feedback

First, I’d like to start with a few analogies. You may be familiar with the Greek mythological story of Icarus: He was told he would be successful as long as he did not fly too close to the sun or the water. Unfortunately, his hubris got the better of him and he flew so high, the sun melted his wings, causing him to fall to his death in the water below.

Now think about the Chinese philosophy of the yin and yang: the idea that many seemingly contrary forces may actually be complementary and may give rise to each other. One is just the inverse of the other.

When I used to paint, I learned that the darkest part of the edge of a shadow is also the brightest part of the other side of the light.

In my previous career as a school counselor, I heard a wonderfully insightful police officer put very scary situations into context this way: “Sometimes the lowest and darkest times can turn out to be your ‘dark angel’ – the turning point that helps you learn from a bad experience.”

These concepts are also used in the most recent “third wave” generation of psychotherapies that add a mindfulness-based component to traditional evidence-based cognitive-behavioral therapy. For example, in acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), you teach patients the idea that in order to truly experience highly positive emotions, they must accept the presence of their negative emotions – one does not exist without the other.

Icarus in action

How can this concept apply to feedback with supervisees? You can use it by identifying their best strengths before you start addressing the current problem, then linking them as two sides of the same coin. Here are some ways to get into that frame of mind:

  1. Get to know your employees well enough that you can identify each of their best strengths.
  2. In the context of those strengths, think about how the problem might be seen as an overutilized strength. Are they over-relying on that strength as a solution (hammer) to address all problems (nails) even when that tool doesn’t work?
  3. Begin the conversation by suggesting that the overuse of any solution – even if it’s your best and greatest developed strength – can become useless if used for the wrong thing.

This is what the conversation might look like:


“John, as you know, anyone’s greatest strengths can easily become a liability when overused. My goal is to make sure that we can capitalize on your strengths in the right way, at the right time [or people, situations, etc.], and catch it and pull it back if it’s becoming overapplied to situations when it no longer works well. I wanted to talk with you specifically about this today because I’m worried a little bit of that is happening right now for this new project.”

Description of the problem

“From my perspective, one of your greatest strengths, and the thing I so greatly value in terms of your contributions to the team, is your attention to detail. We rarely have problems with missing information because you are able to track and catch these well before our products go out. Unfortunately, the ‘dark side’ to this strength is the liability of timing. I have seen that there are times when that level of attention to detail gets the better of you. For example, recently, it caused us to miss important deadlines because you weren’t ready to let go of the project when we needed to.”

Check-in on level of insight and plan for adjustments

A final important part of feedback, of course, is to evaluate the supervisee’s level of insight and determine next steps. Any mix of the following questions can help with this evaluation and intervention step:

  • Have you noticed this as well?
  • Are there areas/times when you see this as more of a problem/less of a problem? (Here, you are trying to evaluate the pervasiveness of the problem and whether they’ve had successes they can apply from one area of their lives to the current situation)
  • What have you already tried to address the problem so far? What have you thought about but not yet tried in order to fix this problem?
  • How can I help you apply it/start it/support this?

Why it works for me

Personally, I have found that framing feedback in the context of this yin-and-yang approach sends two messages that are important to me as a supervisor: how much I value my employees’ strengths and how much I care about how well they apply these strengths to be as successful as possible.

The other great aspect of this approach is that it reduces the potential for inaccurate assessments or disagreements about your assessment: it’s unlikely that your understanding of an employee’s strength would be too off the mark, and thus easier for the employee to see when that strength goes awry.

What works for you?

Have you tried this or other approaches that you have found to be successful in providing feedback? I’d love to hear additional ideas!

Read more of Dr. Brancu’s work at Psychology Today

Last updated January 29, 2019