How To Deliver Effective Feedback

A huge part of your job as a leader is to help people grow and succeed. 

Delivering feedback — both positive and negative — is a critical part of employee growth, and sharing feedback in a way the resonates requires a good deal of self-awareness and skill.

For many people, the idea of feedback at the office might conjure memories of tedious annual performance reviews. Remember those time-consuming evaluations that probably didn’t result in much? They still exist and their utility remains mixed. 

Some of the lucky ones out there (read: the folks who’ve worked for great leaders) might have had really good experiences with feedback that resulted in progress and helped you grow. 

When done right, feedback absolutely is at the foundation of every successful team. 

I’m going to give you specific tips on giving effective positive and (especially) negative feedback. But let’s stay at the 10,000-foot level for a bit, because here’s the thing that so often gets missed in discussions about feedback: you have to understand your motives

Why? Because unless you’re dialed into that, there’s a lot of room for misunderstanding. For feedback to have the desired outcome, people have to believe you care. It has to be truly caring and cannot be faked.

Think about your team, the people you manage. You’ve got to examine whether you’re caring enough about the people you lead. A few things you should probe: Do I understand the issues of the people who work for me? Do I understand their problems — work and personal? If not, what is distracting me from actually paying attention? 

Here’s an example that will show you how motive plays into this: often we talk about constructive feedback, which is basically code for feedback that is going to include criticism. But if the criticism is actually constructive, the person on the receiving will know that you’re doing it to help them. They don’t feel like your motive is to make them feel bad, and when they feel like you care, it gives them permission to be in learning mode. 

So please, check your motives. 

Feedback also shouldn’t be a downstream phenomenon. The C-suite and any leaders at the top of an organization need to use the same mechanisms to share feedback with each other. They also need to feel like their peers care. Trust and honesty are essential for any real type of feedback. In fact, what happens on top sets the tone for the entire organization — whether it’s small or large. 

Once you’ve explored the fundamentals, you can start talking tactics. 

Reinforce Your Team, Uplift the World 

Let’s start with the good stuff. 

Positive feedback is essential because it makes the recipients feel good — it affirms them — which also reinforces them. There’s a lot of brain research to support this. 

Make people feel good and whatever you told them you liked, they’ll do it again and again. It’s a motivator.

Your job as a leader is to regularly find out about what people are doing well so that you can deliver that feedback and reinforce them. 

A lot of leaders neglect to do this. Usually, it isn’t because of a lack of care, it actually stems from being a high performer. 

Here’s what I’ve noticed with some clients — they’re highly motivated and rarely satisfied. So they’re focused on achieving the result and then almost immediately, they move onto the next thing. They’re constantly moving and the results they achieve provide enough reinforcement to continue on. So when it comes to taking time to affirm their team, they just forget to do it.

To address this, you should find a way to routinely incorporate this into your day. Here’s an activity you can try:

  • Set a timer (on your phone on your watch) to go off a few times a day. Try this for two weeks. 
  • Use this as a reminder to look up, and notice what people are doing.
  • Find someone and share your positive feedback.

It sounds pedestrian and ridiculous, but it’s like training your muscle memory for delivering regular positive feedback. Even expressing gratitude, like a simple “thank you,” has a positive effect. 

Again, leaders aren’t excused here. There’s this weird misconception that once you’re at the top, you shouldn’t need positive feedback, you’re only going to provide it. 

It’s just not true. All people need reinforcement, so we all need positive feedback.

One more thing on positive feedback: realize that its helpful effects aren’t only restricted to your workplace. When you uplift someone, they carry it with them — it can have ripple effects with all the people they encounter.

It’s really not a stretch to think of delivering positive feedback as something good you can put into the world. 

How To Give Feedback To Help Someone Succeed 

I’ve previously talked about the three legs of the leadership stool: trust, honesty and appropriate vulnerability. With negative feedback, every one of those is really engaged. 

Delivering negative feedback is tough. Few people know how to do it well, and very few people know how to receive it well. 

With those challenges at the forefront, why bother with negative feedback? 

In short, hearing something critical or negative invites a growth experience. You learn from your mistakes

I group negative feedback into two buckets: 

  1. Feedback based on the quality of work; and 
  2. Feedback based on your behavior or temperament

The second one is where it gets dicey because it can feel really personal. But there are productive ways you can approach this kind of feedback. Here are a few guidelines for delivering negative feedback to an employee: 

Check your motivation. This goes back to the point at the very beginning of this article. You need to be clear on your motive, and your motive should be to help the person succeed. If it isn’t clear, that’s a signal that you need to spend more time getting to the bottom of it. 

If your criticism is basically based on your own impatience or disappointment, that’s not useful. Remember, it should be constructive. Pure negative feedback is toxic.

Start with something positive and affirming. Let’s say you’re concerned that a deadline for a project is going to be missed. You might start out with an aspect of the project that has gone well. For example: “The quality of that last element from the project was exceptional. I’m glad you got that done.” Then you might continue with, something like this: “I have one thing though that I have to talk about.” And then, you can describe why you’re concerned. 

Ask questions. Turn the criticism into an inquiry, which will give you an opportunity to get some information. In the missed deadline example, the person might have a legitimate reason for not meeting the due date. 

Determine next steps. If there’s a legitimate explanation, you as the leader might need to adjust your expectations. If it’s not legitimate, you want to explore further. Continuing with the example, you might ask: “Did you overreach in setting that goal? Was it too ambitious?” Essentially, you’re implying that maybe they weren’t working hard enough. You want to understand: are there circumstances that are getting in the way, or is it something about how they’re handling things? 

This is also why it’s important to deliver ongoing feedback — even if it’s negative. The annual review should definitely not be the only time you deliver or receive feedback. By the time you get to the point with an employee where you’re discussing the same issue for the third or fourth time, you can reasonably ask, “If you were in my shoes, where would you be at this stage in the game?” 

In those situations, I’ve had people say, “I’d probably fire me.” Then you can frame the discussion in terms of, “Yes, that’s where we are. How can we do this in a way that is decent? Perhaps you’d like to resign and that’s okay.”

Again, I caution the senior leaders — it’s going to be difficult to get negative feedback, but it’s essential to solicit it and ensure your continued development. If you have direct reports, they should be giving you regular feedback. 

A lot of CEOs I coach intellectually grasp the importance of this, but they struggle when it comes to doing it because their emotional intelligence level hasn’t risen sufficiently. 

But the phrase, “no pain, no gain” rings true. You learn from the pain. 

This article is based on episodes of Sheer Clarity, a weekly leadership podcast from J. Kevin McHugh. Visit the website to view all episodes and subscribe.

McHugh is the president of JKM Management Development, a management consulting firm specializing in increasing organizational performance and coaching business leaders to develop emotional awareness, conflict resolution capabilities, and maximize executive effectiveness.

Sheer Clarity with J. Kevin McHugh