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Team Dynamics (student module): Feedback - How to Give It and Receive It

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Feedback helps you understand how you are doing in a leadership position and lets those you lead know how they are doing. While learning how to give feedback is a valuable skill, it is also important to learn how to receive feedback. Feedback also enables leaders to determine how they can change to make a process or situation better.

Feedback: Negative, Positive or Just Right?

Gail Zack Anderson)

Some of us are really good at giving positive feedback. Others are really good at giving negative feedback. Not many seem skilled in providing both, what I call balanced feedback. Occasionally a client will tell me, “just tell it like it is. Be brutally honest.” Or, “you are just being nice.” This makes me wonder if my feedback is too polite, or too subtle, even though I try to give it honestly and in a balanced fashion. Why? Let’s take a look at what can happen when you give feedback, either too positive or too negative.

Too little positive feedback

While working recently with a manager, I noticed that he tended to give mostly negative feedback, and very little positive. This manager stated that he had been taught that giving negative feedback would be more motivational. He also thought positive feedback seemed “too soft” and unnecessary. As he added: “Why should we praise people for just doing their jobs?”When most or all feedback is negative, people know what you don’t like, but they often have to guess at what you do like or want from them. They may feel overwhelmed and discouraged by the criticism, and they may take it personally. They don’t ready minds, and so are often confused about what you really want. They may lose confidence, since everything they do seems wrong. In addition, if the only time they hear from you is when you have a complaint, they may soon begin to feel defensive, or try to avoid interactions with you.

That said, negative feedback has its place. To be effective it needs to be specific and non-judgmental. Compare these two comments on a written report:

  1. “I can’t believe you turned in such shoddy work. Don’t you know any better?”
  2. “One of your conclusions was faulty and you had 3 typos on the report.”

The first comment is shaming and demotivating. I feel bad, but I don’t know what I should do differently. The second comment seems deliberately unemotional, so it takes the shame out of it. It also gives me specific information about what I can do to improve.

Too much positive feedback

If you are a big believer in positive feedback, or if you don’t want to hurt people’s feelings, you may be relying too much on positive feedback and fail to deliver the bad news. We have all heard about employees who received glowing performance reviews right up to the day they were let go for “performance issues.” Obviously, there were problems that should have been addressed. If all you give is positive feedback, people can have an unrealistically high view of their worth and performance levels. Because they receive unbalanced feedback, they can have confidence above and beyond their actual performance levels.

Positive reinforcement certainly has its place, and to be effective it also needs to be specific and clear. Consider these two examples:

  1. “Good job. Keep it up.”
  2. “Your report was clear, your conclusions were on target, and the writing was crisp and accurate.”

The first comment may make me feel good, but I am not really sure what was right about my work. It might make me feel bad because you didn’t even take time to notice what I did. In other words, the easy compliment seems canned and can come across as insincere. The second comment is all positive, but it tells me what you valued, and clearly shows you read my report.

Balanced feedback

Balanced feedback provides feedback on what is being done well as well as what could be improved. The positive feedback builds confidence and reinforces the “good” behavior you want to see more of. It clarifies expectations. It feels good. The negative feedback is given factually and preferably with suggestions for improvement. Consider this example of balanced feedback: “Your report was clear, your conclusions were on target, and the writing was crisp and accurate. There were several typos, and for that I suggest more careful proofing. And one of your conclusions wasn’t clear to me. Let’s talk it over this afternoon and compare notes. Overall, great job!”

If you lead, coach or develop people, I suggest aiming for balanced feedback that builds confidence, shows the direction you want the performance to take, and highlights areas for improvement in a clear, non-punishing way. At the same time, note that people react differently. Some crave the honest feedback, and some crave the “feel good” aspects of positive feedback. Some remember and take to heart any criticism, and some live for it. So adjust accordingly, but always strive to be honest, sincere and matter-of-fact. By being honest and straightforward, and by offering balanced feedback, the people you influence can build skills and confidence at the same time.

How to Share Useful – and Respectful – Feedback

(© Carter McNamara)

Feedback to employees is information regarding their performance and also is information they can act on. Feedback must be shared in a manner that is understandable to them and is perceived by them as being provided in a highly respectful manner. Sharing feedback involves skills in effective listening, verbal and non-verbal communications, and working in multi-cultural environments. Consider the following guidelines, as well.

  1. Be clear about what you want to say before you say it. You might have already sensed what feedback you want to convey. However, you should be clear to yourself about what you want to convey and how you want to convey it.
  2. Share your feedback in a concise and specific manner, then you can embellish. People often lose specificity when they speak because they say far too much, rather than not enough. Or, they speak about general themes and patterns. When giving feedback, first share what you saw or heard, what you want instead, and how the person can achieve it. Then you can add more descriptive information if necessary.
  3. Avoid generalizations. Avoid use of the words “all,” “never” and “always.” Those words can seem extreme, lack credibility and place arbitrary limits on behavior. Be more precise about quantity or proportion, if you address terms of quantities, at all.
  4. Be descriptive rather than evaluative. Report what you are seeing, hearing or feeling. Attempt to avoid evaluative words, such as “good” or “bad.” It may be helpful to quickly share your particular feeling, if appropriate, but do not dwell on it or become emotional.
  5. Own the feedback. The information should be about your own perception of information, not about the other’s perceptions, assumptions and motives. Use ‘I’ statements as much as possible to indicate that your impressions are your own.
  6. Be careful about giving advice. When giving feedback, it is often best to do one thing at a time – share your feedback, get the person’s response to your feedback, and then, when he/she is more ready to consider additional information, share your advice with him/her.

Additional Perspectives on Giving and Receiving Feedback

(see for links)

Giving Negative Feedback

  1. Get your emotions under control. You don't want to critique someone else's actions when you are angry or upset. You are likely to say something you don't really mean or to react poorly to something that is said to you.
  2. Find a private place. No one wants to receive negative feedback in front of others. Sometimes it is unavoidable, but that should be a last resort. Take a meeting in your office, call the person into a vacant conference room, step into the lunch room if it is vacant.
  3. Focus on their actions, not on the person. You create an immediate barrier when you criticize the person. Focus instead on what you want to change. Focus on their performance.
  4. Be specific. It does no good to tell someone 'you have a bad attitude'. You need to identify specific actions the person took or specific things they said if you want them to understand.
  5. Be timely. Negative feedback should be given as soon as possible after the event. If you see an employee being rude to a customer, don't wait until their annual performance review to tell them. How many other customers will they have angered in the meantime? Call them into your office right away.
  6. Be calm. Don't yell and scream. The other person will become defensive and won't hear what you are trying to tell them.
  7. Reaffirm your faith in the person. This reinforces step three, but here you tell them that you still have faith in them as a person and in their abilities; it's just their performance you want them to change. Say something like "you're a good customer service rep, so I'm sure you see the need to be more patient with customers".
  8. Stop talking. After you have told the person what specific, recent actions were inappropriate, and why, stop talking. Give the other person a chance to respond to or refute your statements. Listen to what they have to say.
  9. Define positive steps. Agree on what future performance is appropriate for the employee. If there are specific things the employee needs to start doing or needs to stop doing, be sure they are clearly identified. If there is something you need to do, perhaps additional training for the employee, agree on that as well.
  10. Get over it. After you have given the negative feedback and agreed on a resolution, move on with the job. Don't harbor ill will toward the employee because they made a mistake. Don't hover over them out of fear that they may make another mistake. Monitor their performance as you do all employees, but don't obsess.

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