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Giving feedback starts with knowing why you are giving it. Are you frustrated and angry at recent actions? Is the feedback coming out of a desire for control or to express your importance? Or is it intended to help?

Obviously the latter is the preferred state of mind but even then you have to be careful. Is this the best time to be sharing the information? Usually we are told that feedback should be immediate but I think we can all be aware of times when that’s actually not desirable – the intended recipient, perhaps frustrated at a situation, actually is not prepared to accept the feedback, so you can’t help them at this time and have to wait. There is also some feedback that people are constitutionally not able to accept. So why go there? Keep your powder dry for another day and another issue.

Consultant Kevin Eikenberry adds to this dynamic of helping by saying there are three goals you must adopt in giving feedback. The first is to help the other person understand the feedback. It’s not worth giving feedback if it won’t be understood – an obvious point, but something often missed, particularly if nervous about the process of giving feedback – and, crucially, you have a role as a manager in changing the situation. “Coaches mess this up by sharing feedback quickly or in ways that make sense to them, without making sure that the receiver really understands the context, the feedback itself, and the next steps required to make a change. This is why we must slow down when giving feedback; share specifics, share the data and results, and focus on what actually happened, not our judgment or interpretation of what happened,” he writes on his blog. It’s a conversation, not a declaration from on high.

The second goal is to get the person to accept and believe the feedback. And that will usually not come immediately. The person probably believes what they have been doing is right or even if they sense it’s flawed need time to adjust to a new approach. “Give people time to process what you have shared with them. Pressing the issue won’t likely help,” he says.

The final step is for the recipient to use the feedback. Your help might be needed here, not so much to nudge and push them, but to help them adjust and get it right.

Many managers opt for the so-called feedback sandwich: Offer some positive feedback, then negative, and conclude with positive so that the conversation has some optimistic moments. But the person probably senses the negative is coming, tunes out on the positive, and you come across as somewhat disingenuous. Get to the point, and save the positive comments for another time.

The American Management Association on its website suggests you pay attention to your style when giving feedback, including these factors:

  • Do you use the least amount of intensity and force in your tone of voice and word choice to get the point across?
  • Does that language and tone communicate “we’re two adults here” (versus “I’m the teacher scolding the student”)?
  • Do you ask questions to better understand where employees are coming from, to help them explore the reasons for their actions, and to guide them in how they can do something differently the next time?
  • Do you check in to get their thoughts about what you just said, or just drone on and on?

That’s all obvious, of course. But we can all remember failing to abide by those guidelines.

In an article in Harvard Business Review exploring many of our fallacies around the feedback exchange, noted consultant Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall, a senior vice-president at Cisco Systems Inc., say we believe that feedback contains useful information that will be the magic ingredient to accelerate someone’s learning. But research suggests learning is less a function of adding something that isn’t there and more about recognizing, reinforcing and refining what already is.

There are many implications in that nugget of advice, including their suggestion to remember when something goes wrong and you intervene, the best you can achieve is remediating a bad situation. To really help someone achieve excellence, catch them doing something right, stop them, and dissect it. Point the individual to the performance you want repeated – that’s feedback too, the highest priority feedback, those writers argue.

So keep these ideas in mind the next time you are giving feedback.


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