How to give feedback constructively (ultimate 12-part guide)

Feedback is necessary, for anyone and from everyone, It’s a great way to improve team communication and build trust at work – but truth be told it’s difficult!

It’s difficult to give it, to receive it and most importantly to angle it well.

It shouldn’t be that difficult, and that’s why I’ve put down this guide.

Feedback should not be that difficult – this guide is here to help

This guide goes through every single aspect of giving feedback (to employees, to managers, positive, negative…), with examples, videos and theory behind it, so take a look at the points below and start applying them – and then witness the results!

And make sure you take a look at my guides on how to overcome bias and on emotional intelligence and leadership if you want to dig deeper into the topic.

Jump to a topic

Feedback fundamentals

Feedback examples

How to give feedback to your manager

Feedback Culture

A feedback round

Fundamentals

Feedback is a form of control

Everything about feedback boils down to a single thing: have you ever considered how feedback is merely a way of controlling other people’s behaviour?

it’s in the name: feed-back.

If you strip the of every other layer, at its core that’s what it is: you give people information they can use as input to feed them back in and inform their future actions.

Seen like this it’s easy to see why it’s so tricky: people don’t like to be controlled. There are whole schools of thought on motivation and drive based just on this concept.

Everything revolves around this: feedback is a form of control – and people don’t like to be controlled. That’s why it backfires so often.

Yet and still most of the time what we focus on is our perspective on how others should behave, not on understanding theirs first.

What to do instead? Simple: include their perspective first.

Easier to say than to do obviously, and in the next paragraphs I’ll show you exactly how to do it.

How to give positive feedback

When you give positive feedback to others, limit your message to one point only: make people feel good about their actions.

Or, in other words, stick to looking at things that happened before or are happening now, without even mentioning the future.

Why?

Because the moment you mention what they could be doing next or what they will be achieving you stop giving feedback and start telling them what to do.

And once you do, you roll back into trying to control them: you change the message from making them feel good about themsevels to telling them how you want to behave.

When you give positive feedback to others, limit your message to one point only: make people feel good about their actions

So, stick to the present and the past. That leaves the choice on what to do with them – and if that’s the case, that’s when they are most likely to genuinely listen to your message.

Here are some examples of positive feedback.

How to give negative feedback

Sometimes you’ll need to give someone negative feedback. And that’s ok, as long as you remember to avoid any form of being perceived as trying to control that person.

Best way to do it? Aim to inform them of their behaviour and let them figure out the consequences.

Don’t be the one telling them what to do, otherwise they’ll get defensive, and the whole thing will backfire.

When you give negative feedback, aim to inform people of their behaviour and let them figure out the consequences.

Moving past semantics there are good ways of giving it and bad ways. Good and bad here are meant in terms of effectiveness, i.e. how likely your points are to stick and to be listened to, and you’ll have more chances you’d be listened to if you:

  • inform them of what you have noticed
  • ask them for their take

If the people you are talking to are above a minimum level of professionalism, they will be the first ones to link behaviour to consequences and figure out an option or solution.

If instead you tell them what they did wrong and aim to teach them a lesson at any point, that’s where defensiveness starts and negative feedback backfires.

And yes, negative feedback can backfire – quite often and quite badly compared to positive, matter of fact.

Of course there will be cases in which the person in front of you (even your boss) lacks the skills or the professionalism to link what you say in a logical train of thought, but that’s a whole different discussion.

Here are some examples of negative feedback.

The difference between positive and negative feedback

Whenever I hear the word “feedback” I automatically build an image in my head: a sort of benevolent leader sharing some of his or her precious time to provide information to a team member on how to improve and develop.

In other words: constructive criticism, which is a nice way to say negative feedback.

And that’s a major part of the problem. I mean, it is clear how giving positive feedback is so much stronger than constructive criticism. It’s also so much safer to give as it has less of a chance to backfire.

Positive feedback is so much stronger than constructive criticism

But if that’s the case, how is it that whenever we talk about feedback or even think about it, the only version we picture in our head is the negative and less effective one?

Try is: how often do you find yourself telling people what they could improve on next time instead of letting them know how well they’ve worked this time?

If we tried the opposite over a sufficiently long period of time, the results would be quite different – people more motivated, better prepared and more attentive to the message.

This is not easy, which is why you will find several examples in the following paragraphs to help you put is all into practice.

Feedback examples

Examples of positive feedback

There’s a key change you can make on your perspective to change the way people perceive your feedback.

Which one?

What you focus on: past or future.

Especially with positive feedback: never focus on the future when you are the one providing it. Don’t focus on targets for example.

Instead, focus on the past, on what people have done and why they’ve done it well, not on how close they are to reaching goals.

It’s one thing to acknowledge a job well done, it’s another to tell them they need to do more.

Let’s make an example: Jodie is your new team member and has been rocking her sales, so you want to give her some positive feedback. You can do it in two versions:

  1. “You are definitely on target with respect to your sales numbers, keep pushing you’ll definitely break records.”
  2. “I’ve seen your way of working and way you made choices and decisions on your sales project, absolutely brilliant job, really well done.”

The first one wants to implicitly control: you are telling the person to behave in a specific way by focusing on the outcome you want, you give this type of praise so that the person does more of what you want

  • it does not give a choice on what to do, it’s directive
  • it does not give information about the present competence / behaviour, just on the result
  • it gives you no feeling of being competent in your choices, but more of conforming to what is expected

The second one doesn’t: you are informing the person that his or her way is good by focusing on his or her present behaviour, you give it because you want to comment on how well the person has worked

  • it does not give a direction, so the choice remains yours
  • it gives information about the competence / behaviour, does not mention the result
  • it gives you the feeling that your thought process and choices were right, it makes you feel competent and autonomous

Examples of negative feedback

Think about it: anytime you mention “constructive criticism” the general expectation is that the other person will understand that you are trying to help and will not take it badly.

Though… how real is this expectation? To be honest I’ve seldom seen it actually work – it’s like when you say “no offense” and expect the other person to really take none.

Sure, it will be toned down, but not eliminated – and that, when it comes to constructive criticism, is a problem.

It’s a problem because your goal in giving constructive criticism or negative feedback is for the message to land, but as soon as people get defensive, that simply will not happen.

There’s a simple reason for which people do get defensive, and that’s the key point you need to remember in this instance: 90% of the time, people get defensive when you provide them negative (or constructive) feedback because you forgot to ask for their perspective.

If you show no consideration for someone’s perspective, that person will feel you attacked. Simple as that.

What to do then?

Simple: ask them for their perspective first – and only afterwards voice your feedback.

Let’s make an example: Sarah has left for the weekend without putting a spending budget on some ads she’s running, so you need to give her some negative feedback. You can do it in two versions:

  1. “I saw no limit had been set on the campaign spending before the weekend. Had someone not come across it we would have overshot our spending budget for the month. It would be great if we could be more aware in the future.”
  2. “There was no limit on the campaign spending before the weekend. Can you give me your take on it?”

The first one aims to control future behaviours: you give it because you require the person to behave in a certain way in the future, you want them to give you the outcome you desire

  • it gives a direction, a prescription
  • it disregards the person
  • it’s evaluative

The second one does not: you give it because you want to understand how the person came to behave in a certain way, you want to encourage the person’s reasoning and awareness

  • it looks at the past, is not prescriptive
  • it takes the person into account
  • it’s not evaluative

Feedback for managers (with examples)

Positive feedback for managers

Being a manager is a lonely place. And if you have a manager above you, do this one thing…

Give them positive feedback.

Remember to give positive feedback to your managers, it may mean a lot more than you may think

It means a lot, it builds trust and it’s coming from a valid source.

If deserved of course, but too often we forget to look upwards in feedback rounds.

Here is an example: Julia is your manager, you and her have had a strong disagreement that ended with clarity, despite being tough, and she avoided escalation. You want to give her feedback for that and you can do it in two versions:

  1. “Hey just a follow up on what happened, I wanted to tell you that if you keep on being straight with me I’ll keep on giving my best”
  2. “Hey, it was a tough situation to be in but I think you handled it very well, especially with how you got your point through without escalating, and thanks for being straightforward with me”

The first one aims to direct:

  • it does not give a choice on what to do, it’s directive
  • it does not give information about the present competence / behaviour, just on the result
  • it uses controlling language (if… then…)

The second one aims to inform:

  • it does not give a direction, so the choice remains yours
  • it gives information about the competence / behaviour, does not mention the result
  • it does not use controlling language

And as I’m sure you can see by now, the impact of the second one will be much, much stronger than the first.

Negative feedback for managers

One of the most difficult situations, professionally, is when you need to give feedback – negative feedback – to someone above you.

No questions asked: it’s hard.

That said, sometimes it’s necessary, so here’s an idea on how to make it work.

Even managers need criticism, it’s up to you to know how to give it well.

Everything revolves around making sure the other person does not feel attacked and get defensive. In practice, what you want to do is:

  • give the person a chance to give his or her opinion first
  • not be evaluative
  • not tell the person what to do.

If you have these three conditions in place, then you can reasonably believe your feedback or criticism will be well-received. Here’s an example: Tom is your manager and has skipped your one-to-ones for the past weeks. You decide you need to give Tom some feedback, here are two versions of it:

  1. “I know you want me to perform and reach the goals you set, but I would please appreciate having more regular guidance from my manager in the future to do that”
  2. “I noticed we haven’t managed to have our chats lately, all good?”

The first one aims to control future behaviours: you give it because you require the person to behave in a certain way in the future, you want them to give you the outcome you desire

  • it gives a direction, a prescription
  • it disregards the person
  • it’s evaluative

The second one does not: you give it because you want to understand how the person came to behave in a certain way, you want to encourage the person’s reasoning and awareness

  • it looks at the past, is not prescriptive
  • it takes the person into account
  • it’s not evaluative

And as usual, it’s the second approach that can make the difference!

Feedback culture

Coaching vs. teaching

Depending on who you are giving feedback to, there is another relevant question to ask yourself: am I trying to teach something to this person or am I trying to coach this person?

The two are different, massively different, and if your goal is to maximise how much of your message you can pass on and enable the other person to retain, knowing the answer is fundamental.

Briefly, it all boils down to the other person’s level of skill.

If the person is skilled, act as a coach. If the person is not skilled, give directive feedback instead. Unskilled people need to learn new things. Skilled people need to refine their knowledge

The need is different, and so is your approach. Simple as that.

How to give feedback to an expert

Someone who is experienced and knows what to do and how to do may still make a mistake – that’s fine and that happens.

The problem starts when you want to provide that person with feedback and make a suggestion on how to work didfferently next time.

I’m sure you’d have good intentions, but that’s simply a bad move – if the person has enough skill and perspective, it’s quite probable that he or she knows exactly where the mess-up was and what to do next time.

Or in other words, the last thing that person needs is someone to point out a mistake that he or she is already fully aware about.

So what to do instead? Go into a coaching stance, enable them to have a sounbding board, ask for their opinion, facilitate their reasoning.

If you see things differently, so will they.

How to give feedback to a new hire

There is pretty much only one instance in which nothing that we’ve said so far works: if the person fully lacks the right skills for the job and needs to be taught.

It’s fine, we did not have all the right skills when we started either, what we did have (hopefully) was a manager that trusted us and told us what to do.

So in this case do precisely that: teach people, tell them how it works and what to do.

And once they gain the right skills and start to be able to see their own mistakes slowly shift to a more coaching stance.

That’s how you get people to grow at first.

What happens if people say no?

There is a non-zero possibility that someone will not be ready to receive your feedback at the same moment you are ready to give it.

And that (especially as a manager) can be insanely frustrating. You feel that you are literally trying to help that person and that person is refusing your help – or you may feel that your time is precious and limited and you need to deal with whatever happened right now.

I know it’s extremely difficult (again, especially as a manager) to let go of something while you are in the midst of your workday, but that’s exactly what you need to do.

If someone says “no” to your offer for feedback just respect it, hard as it may be – otherwise you risk becoming pedantic and getting the opposite effect.

In other words: be mindful of timing – what might work for you now may not work for others, and do that ESPECIALLY as a manager!

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