How To Give Great Feedback (That Others Will Listen To)

You’re driving a car through the desert trying to get to the other side.

You keep following the markers one after the other that are there to make sure you’re on track. However, the markers stop, and you have to decide what you’re going to do.

Are you going to stop and turn around? Or are you going to keep going forward, hoping you don’t get off track? You might make it, but you might go in the wrong direction and not know till it’s too late.

This example is similar to how many employees live their lives at work. Some get the feedback they need to stay on track. They know when they are doing well and where they need to improve. The feedback is frequent like the markers in the desert so that they don’t get off track very far.

give great feedback driving in desert

Other employees don’t get that feedback. It’s as if they chose to keep driving through the desert without the markers.

They think they are going in the right direction, but they don’t know for sure. They think they are doing well, but it’s only a guess. And they may not know if they are doing well or not until it’s too late (whether by a yearly review or being fired).

You Need To Give Feedback

Feedback is important. It helps people know if they are on track or not. It lets them know where they are doing well and where they need to improve.

People generally want to know where they stand. It’s discouraging and demotivating to work day after day without knowing if you are doing well or not, and it’s even more so to think you are on the right track only to find out weeks or months down the road that you’ve been off the whole time, and no one told you.

Now there are different kinds of feedback, and people associate different words and meanings with feedback, such as “positive” or “negative” or “constructive.” However, often when people think about feedback, they generally think “negative” or “constructive.” However, feedback is both: letting people know how they are doing well (and showing appreciation) as well as how they can improve.

Is Negative Feedback Actually Negative?

However, the term “negative feedback” isn’t really the right term if you have the right mindset. If you have a growth mindset, and you’re about learning and growing and getting better, you want feedback. It’s not negative—it’s a good thing because it helps you grow.

If you really want to be the best you can be, you want to maintain that growth mindset and accept and receive feedback because that’s how you can get better.

Culture Matters

How people receive (and give) feedback depends on the culture you have in your organization. Too often, cultures are toxic, or the focus is on posturing, politics, or one’s status, and people are afraid to make mistakes or to reveal (or hear) any negative feedback about themselves because it might hurt their careers.

You don’t want to build that type of culture. You want to grow a growth mindset in your employees where feedback is normal—it’s a cultural norm. People share with one another because their focus is on getting better, not maintaining some kind of status or image or protecting their career.

If your people fear that any mistake or deficiency will hurt their jobs, they won’t be receptive to the feedback you give.

Avoid “The Sandwich”

Sometimes, when people give feedback, they try to put it in “the sandwich.” The sandwich is this: You have something negative or constructive you want to tell someone. You may fear their reaction, don’t want to tell them straight up, or feel guilty because you are being “negative” and maybe haven’t given much positive feedback, so you try to butter it up.

give great feedback sandwich

To do that, you sandwich it between two positives. You say, “You’re doing great at this, but you really stink at this, but you’re such a great employee and blah blah.”  

People do this because they think it makes the negative feedback more palatable. Don’t do that.

It’s not that you can’t give positive and negative at the same time, but giving “the sandwich” has many different issues—here’s a major one: Especially if you never give positive feedback elsewhere, people know it’s fake and that you are only doing it because you are trying to butter up the negative.

People see through it. Even when you do give positive feedback more frequently, it can still come across as fake. They know you are doing it just because you want to try to make the negative feedback taste better.

Instead, as we’ve mentioned, you want a culture where it’s normal to share feedback, not one where you feel you have to butter something up to give it.

You Should Give A Lot Of Appreciation

And, speaking of appreciation, positive feedback should be the norm of what you do. There are many benefits to it.

For one, it’s motivating to people. It lets people know that their work is seen and appreciated. It lets them know they are on track.

People often work harder because of it, and it also tells people what kind of behaviors you want to see. If you want people to admit mistakes, bring up problems, or to disagree in meetings, praise and show appreciation for those behaviors.

This not only encourages those doing the behaviors to continue, but it encourages those who aren’t to start.

Make giving appreciation a norm of what you—try to give it to everyone at least once a week.

The Real Reason Many of Us Don’t Give The Feedback We Should

Sometimes people don’t like to give feedback because they’re afraid of the person’s reaction.

Now, don’t get me wrong, we often don’t say it that way. We may say we don’t want to hurt the other person’s feelings. But generally, it’s because we don’t want to deal with the uncomfortable emotions that can come with sharing feedback with other people.

give great feedback fear response

Sometimes it can be hard. Sometimes the person may not accept it. But that doesn’t matter because if you care about someone, you’re going to give them feedback.

If they are doing something that hurts their career or that’s hurting them in their job,and you’re like, “Well, if I tell them I might hurt their feelings,” what you’re really saying is you don’t care enough about them and their future success to deal with those negative emotions that might happen.

Hopefully, if you see me walking around with spinach in my teeth, you’ll say, “Hey, Thomas, there’s spinach in your teeth” and not be like, “Well, I don’t want to hurt his feelings. He might get offended if I tell him he’s got spinach in his teeth.”

Please tell me.

Same thing for your employees. Let people know so they can get better or so they don’t embarrass themselves.

So then, how do you give feedback?

Some Guidelines For Giving Feedback

The feedback you give depends on what you’re giving feedback about. But here are some basic guidelines that you can follow when it comes to giving feedback.

Be Specific – Avoid the Vague

First, you want to be specific. If you’re showing appreciation, be specific about what you’re showing appreciation for. If you’re talking to somebody about something negative or how they messed up on a project, or whatever it may be, you want to be specific about it.

Being vague, saying things like, “You really stink at making reports” doesn’t help them in any way. You want to be specific about what’s going on and how someone can improve.

Be timely

You also want to be timely. Sometimes people wait for the annual review or the quarterly review (or whatever it may be), and that makes absolutely no sense. It’s like if I get on to one of my kids a week later after they throw the remote across the room—they probably won’t even remember it.

If you really want feedback to be effective, it should be timely—as soon as you can. If someone’s not doing a good job on their work, don’t wait a few weeks to let them know. Let them know quickly.

Why let them continue doing negative or poor work for weeks when you can help them make it right today?

It’s the same with appreciation. If someone does a good job on something, waiting days or a month or more to let them know they did a good job is generally pointless. They may not even remember it, and they may even feel unappreciated because they haven’t heard anything for so long.

You want feedback to be timely generally as soon as you can.

Feedback Should Be Frequent

Similar to being timely, you also want feedback to be frequent. Just as if you were driving across that desert, if you don’t have frequent feedback to let you know if you are on track or not, you can easily get lost.

Feedback should be a frequent norm.

Separate the Person From The Behavior

You also want to separate the person from what they did.

Sometimes when people do things, we attribute it to their character. For example, if someone has a bunch of sloppy errors in their report, we call them lazy versus focusing on the fact that they have errors in their report.

Don’t do that. Focus on the specific behavior and the event that occurred.

Jim Collins and Bill Lazier, in their book Beyond Entrepreneurship 2.0, say it’s like dealing with a kid’s messy closet: The closet is messy—not the kid is messy. You deal with the messy closet, not label them as a messy kid.

So if someone’s late to work day after day, you don’t focus on what you think they may be—such as inept or lazy. You take that away. You focus on the fact that they were late this day, this day,  and this day.

You then focus and talk about the specific behaviors and events and not attach any label on them.

 Captain David Marque, in his book Leadership is Language, talks about being objective. When you give feedback, he says there’s a difference between “This is written poorly,” “This is filled with mistakes,” and “There’s three spelling errors in this report.”

He also recommends using nouns instead of verbs. For example, instead of saying something like, “You performed poorly,” you would say something like, “Your performance was poor.”

Be Someone Who Receives Feedback Themselves

It’s also important that you are someone who receives feedback yourself. If you get upset, angry, or defensive anytime someone gives you feedback, why should you expect others to accept feedback from you?

Give great feedback listen to feedback 1

How You Give Feedback Depends on the Situation

Now, depending on the feedback you are giving, how you give the feedback may vary.

Supporting Advice

For example, you are in a meeting and one of your teammates or employees is presenting. You notice that they say “um” a lot while speaking. You may pull them aside afterward and let them know how their “ums” are hurting them in their presentation, and that it makes them look unconfident.


If someone messes up on the report, for example, or they’re underperforming, you probably want to have a one-on-one meeting (whether it’s a normal one-on-one or you pull them aside, etc.). When you meet with them, one of the best things to do is to start off by asking questions.

This is helpful, because, sometimes, especially as leaders, we can assume we know why someone’s underperforming or why this issue is happening, but often we don’t. So, by asking questions, having them give their viewpoint on what’s going on, you may learn there are issues they’re having that are outside their control.

Maybe they can’t get another department to work with them. Maybe there are other issues that you don’t know about that you can help with. Maybe they just need more training or support. Whatever it is, you find out by asking questions.

And, if it is something that they are struggling with, help them come up with the solution on their own. You can ask questions such as “What’s holding you back?” “What can you do better?” or “What do you think could help you get this project on time?”

When they help create the solutions, they have more ownership of their work and the changes that they need to make.

If you just go in there and say, “You did this wrong, you did this wrong, and this is what you’re going to do differently,” there’s not much ownership in that, and you may be wrong about what the real issue is.  

Behavior Issues

If it’s a behavior issue, you probably still want to ask questions, but it may be a little bit different depending on the conversation.

If someone is frequently late, for example, you likely want to start off by stating the facts about when they’ve been late. Then you can ask them what’s going on and what’s causing them to be late. Depending on the behavior and depending on the issue, it may be something you can work with them on.

For example, if they’re late because their kid’s been sick, then maybe you can work with them to adjust their schedule temporarily, or whatever it may be.

However, there are situations in which you can’t do that, behaviors that aren’t good and that you need to stop. To deal with those, you want to reset expectations.

You talk with them. You share the specific behaviors. You get their feedback from their viewpoint. Then you reset the expectations.

You state the expectation (e.g. You’re here at 8:00 in the morning). Then you talk to them about how if they continue that behavior then X and Y will be the consequences and what the process and steps will be if that behavior continues (also make sure to document in these situations).

The 3-Step Feedback Process

One way to give feedback is by following this three-step process (this comes from Kim Scott’s Radical Candor which got from the Center for Creative Leadership, but others have similar processes).

You start with the situation. Then you talk about the behavior. Then you discuss the effects of the behavior.

For example, the situation: Work starts at 8:00. The behavior: You’ve been late for work for the past three weeks. The effect: Everybody else has to pitch in and do your work for you because you’re not there on time.

Another example: “In meetings, you sometimes interrupt others when they’re presenting ideas. You interrupted Sue and Joe when they were trying to present ideas. When you interrupt people, it makes them feel less valued and they don’t want to speak up anymore because they think you’re just going to interrupt them again.”

Does that make sense? Situation, behavior, effect.

You can use that for appreciation, too. “In the meeting, you gave us some great feedback which helped us make a better decision.”

Going back to talking to your teammate or employee about their “ums,” you can say, “Hey, I noticed in that meeting during your presentation that you said um a lot. The thing is, when you say that a lot, it makes it look like you’re not very confident about what you’re saying.” Then you can go from there.

You’re not attacking the person. You’re just talking about the behavior in the way they can improve.

You Must Actually Care (And Have Influence) With People

Now, a key part about giving feedback is that you have to actually care about the people that you are giving feedback to, and you have to have influence with them. If you don’t, it’s going to be much harder to give feedback.

And, if you want to learn more about building influence with people, make sure to read this article here.

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