Giving feedback

Brian Harry

Six months ago I wrote a post on Taking Feedback.  Several people asked me to write a follow up on giving feedback.  Amazing how time flies and somehow I just haven’t gotten around to it – so I’m doing it now.

Here’s a key snippet from the Taking Feedback post if you don’t want to go read the whole thing…

At some level, all feedback is valid. It is the perception of another person based on some interaction with us. As such it’s important that we listen, understand and think about how we can improve. Yet, not all feedback is to be taken as given – meaning the person giving the feedback may have heard something that wasn’t true, misinterpreted something, or may simply not have the perspective we have. In the end we are the ones to decide what to do with the feedback. We may decide that the feedback is valid and provides clear ideas for improvement. Or we may decide that we disagree with the feedback but it provides insights into how we could do differently to prevent misperceptions. Or we may decide that the we simply don’t agree with the feedback and we are going to file it away and keep an eye out for future feedback that might make us revisit that conclusion.

Giving someone feedback is a wonderful thing but it’s also a very hard thing – partly because taking feedback can be so difficult that it makes giving it very stressful.  There are some things I’ve learned over the years about giving feedback that have made it a little bit easier.

There are two kinds of feedback

This is probably the one I fail the most on.  We usually think of feedback as a negative thing – here’s something you can do better.  But positive feedback is equally important – here’s something you did particularly well.  I tend to be so focused on how I and the people around me can do better that I, too often, forget to point out when someone has done something well – or they have some attribute that I really admire.  It’s not that I don’t know it at some subconscious level; it’s just that I’m caught up in the next challenge to tackle and it just doesn’t occur to me to say anything about it.

So, my first piece of advice is try to be very conscious about positive feedback.  When you see something you like, say so.  Be on the lookout for things to compliment people for.  Do it privately; do it publicly.  Thank people for something you appreciate.  Whether they admit it to themselves or not, everyone likes appreciation and they tend to gravitate to doing things that will earn them more appreciation.  Developing a pattern of recognizing good things will encourage people to do more good things.

At the same time, be careful not to overdo it.  There can be too much of a good thing.  By that, I mean, don’t compliment people for superficial things or things they didn’t really do.  A compliment is most valued when a person feels like they invested energy.  If you compliment people for just anything, then you “cheapen” the feedback and make it mean less when it’s really deserved.

If you are good at giving positive feedback, negative feedback is also easier to give.  People are more likely to respond well to negative feedback if it’s given in an environment where, overall, they feel valued than it is if they feel like they are just always criticized for everything and not valued for anything.

There’s a time and a place for everything

When and where you give feedback is *super* important.  There’s a saying “Public praise and private criticism.”  It’s a good rule to follow.  People really appreciate having their successes publicly celebrated and no one likes being publicly berated.  Beyond that, some other important rules, particularly for negative feedback, are:

  1. Find a time when they are ready to hear it – Unless the feedback is urgently required to avoid a disaster, don’t try to give it when someone is under a great deal of stress (maybe rushing to meet a deadline), frustrated, angry, etc.  Feedback is going to be heard and processed best when the person is relaxed and reflective.  Make sure you have enough uninterrupted time to fully discuss the feedback.  It’s a good idea to ask them if they are ready to for you to give feedback.
  2. Make sure you are ready to give it – Similarly to #1, don’t try to give feedback when you are angry or frustrated.  Taken the time to digest what you need to say – to separate your frustration from an objective assessment of what happened.  Have a calm conversation about what you observed and what could be done differently.
  3. If at all possible, give it in person – Feedback is generally best processed face to face.  It is very easy to read unintended tone in written feedback.  By giving it in person, you can watch for body language to see if the person is hearing something you aren’t intending to say.  Sometimes, of course, it isn’t possible and when it isn’t, you have to be doubly thoughtful about how you say it.  Sometimes I give some initial, very light feedback in writing, with an offer to discuss it at length in person (or via video conference, for remote people).
  4. Give it to the person – It’s amazing to me how often someone will “give feedback” to someone else.  By that, I mean, complain about what someone did to a third person without ever following up with the person themselves.  That’s never going to work and will, in the long run, only create a hostile environment.  Always focus your feedback on the person or people directly involved.  Sometimes it’s necessary and appropriate to share feedback with a broader audience so that everyone can learn from something.  Be careful how you do that because, done wrong that looks a lot like public criticism and never do it without talking to the people directly involved first.

Focus on what you can directly observe

It’s very important to focus on what you can directly observe.  Try very hard to avoid “I’ve heard…” or even “Susan told me…”.  The problem with relaying feedback from someone else is that you don’t really know what has happened and it’s very hard for you to be constructive.  That said, you will, particularly as a manager, get feedback from 3rd parties and it’s not irrelevant.  I generally try to use it, carefully, as supporting evidence when giving my own feedback.  It helps me understand when things I’ve observed are a pattern vs an anomaly.  If someone comes to you with feedback about someone else, try as hard as you can to find a way to facilitate the feedback being given directly between the people involved, even if you need to participate in the discussion to facilitate it.

I’ve observed that humans have an inherent tendency to want to ascribe motive – to determine why someone did something.  “Joe left me out of that important conversation because he was trying to undermine me.”  Any time you find yourself filling in the because clause, stop.  You don’t know why someone does anything.  That is locked up securely in their head.  When filling in that blank people insert some negative reason that’s worse than reality.  So, when giving feedback, stick to what you can see.  “Joe, you left me out of that important conversion.  I felt undermined by that.  Why did you do it?”  In this example, I articulate exactly what I saw happen, how it made me feel and ask Joe to explain to me why.  Joe may dispute that he left me out – that’s fairly factual and we can discuss evidence and Joe can’t dispute how I felt, at least not credibly.  Try as hard as you can to stick to things you personally observed and stay away from asserting motive.  Have a genuine conversation designed to help you better understand each other’s perspective and what each of you can do better in the future.

Consider your relationship

Your relationship with the recipient of your feedback can make a big difference.  You need to be careful about how it colors what you say.  For instance, as a manager, I always try to be one who is connected to what’s going on in the team and give feedback to anyone and everyone on what I see.  Early in my career, I found this can go terribly wrong.  An off hand comment to someone several levels below me in the company can be interpreted as a directive to be followed.  I may have been musing out loud and somehow, accidentally, countermanded several levels of managers.  Try that and see how fast a manager shows up at your door to complain 😊.  Now, I try to be clear when I’m just giving and offhand opinion and when I’m giving direction.  I also tell them to go talk with their manager before acting on what I told them and, often, go tell the manager myself what I said.

This is just one example of how a relationship can affect how feedback is taken.  Feedback from a spouse is different than that from a friend is different than that from a parent is different than that from a co-worker, etc.

Acknowledge your role

Often, when giving feedback, it’s about some interaction your were party to – and, as they say, it takes two to tango.  There may have been things you did that contributed to whatever happened.  Be prepared to acknowledge them and to talk about them.  Don’t refuse to acknowledge that you may have had a role.  At the same time, don’t allow the person to make it all about you.  You have feedback for them.  Don’t let the conversation become only about you.  Make sure you are able to deliver your feedback too.  You may need to offer to set aside time in the future for the other person to give you feedback so that, for now, you can focus on your feedback.

Retrospectives can be powerful

While most of what I’ve written here focuses on how to give feedback to someone, a great technique to drive improvement is to create an environment where people can critique themselves.  Retrospectives are an awesome tool to get one or more people to reflect on something and make their own suggestions for improvements.  Done right, it is a non-threatening and collaborative environment where ideas and alternate ways of handling things can be explored.  Retrospectives, like all feedback, should focus on what happened and what can be better and avoid accusations, blame, and recrimination.  You can participate in it and contribute your feedback or you can discuss the outcome and help process it for future actions.

Beware of feedback landmines

  1. The feedback sandwich – This is probably one of the hardest ones to get right and depends a lot on you and the person you are talking to.  A feedback sandwich is when you tell someone how good they are, then you tell them something you think they need to improve, then you tell them how good they are again.  There are legitimate reasons to mix both positive and negative feedback, for example, it helps establish the scope of the feedback.  If you only give negative feedback, people can read more into it than you mean.  I often use a mix of positive and negative feedback so that I am clear about the scope of the negative feedback.  “I’m not talking about everything you do, I’m just taking about this specific issue”.  Or, “Here’s an example of where you handled something similar well”.  However, when it is primarily used to blunt the emotional impact of the feedback, it is dangerous.  Taken too far, it can completely dilute your point and make your feedback irrelevant.
  2. Examples – When giving feedback, it’s often useful to use examples.  Examples help make the feedback concrete.  But, don’t allow the conversation to turn into a refutation of every example.  I’ve been in conversations where the person I’m talking with wants to go through every example I have and explain why my interpretation is wrong.  Be open to being wrong but don’t let it turn into point/counter point.  Examples are only examples to support your feedback.
  3. Comparisons – Be *very* careful about comparing one person to others.  While it’s often useful to suggest better ways of handling something, it’s very dangerous to do it by saying “You should just do it like Sam.”  It creates resentment, among other things.  Sometimes it is appropriate to talk about examples of how you’ve seen something handled well before but don’t let it become a “Sam is better than you” discussion.


Ironically, just this last weekend, I was having dinner with a friend that I used to work with (she was on my team).  We haven’t worked together in many years but we’ve stayed in touch.  While we were having dinner, she told her husband a story about me.  She said she remembered a time when she had done a review of her project for me and it had not gone well.  After the review, I approached her and asked if she was feeling bad about the review.  She said “Yes” and I said “Good, you should be”.  We then went on to discuss what was bad about it and what she could do to improve it.  On the retelling, it sounded harsh.  While I remember the discussion, I don’t remember many details but it got me thinking.  On the positive side, it was good for me to approach her separately after the meeting.  It was good for me to start with a question of how she was feeling about it.  I probably could have come up with a better reply than “Good, you should be”.  And I do recall we had a good conversation afterwards about how to improve.  If nothing else, this example is proof of how much emotional impact feedback, particularly when not done carefully enough, can have – she has remembered this incident for almost 10 years and I have long forgotten it.

Giving feedback is hard.  There’s no simple rule for it.  It is stressful and can lead to conflict.  The best advice I can give you is:

  1. Give feedback regularly – both positive and negative.
  2. Be careful about when and where you give feedback so you can have a calm and thoughtful conversation.
  3. Focus on things you directly observe and the effects they had on you.  Don’t ascribe motives and make it a personal attack.
  4. Consider your relationship and how it will affect how feedback is heard.
  5. Be aware of your own role and be prepared to discuss it appropriately.
  6. Use retrospectives as a tool for collecting/processing feedback in a non-threatening way.

Lastly, I’ll say, always remember that the purpose of feedback is to help the other person.  If you are giving feedback to make yourself feel better (for example feeling vindicated or superior), you are doomed.  Stop and rethink what you are doing.

As always, I hope this is helpful and feedback is welcome 😊



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