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Giving Feedback

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By Keith Barnwell

 “Everything we shut our eyes to, everything we deny, denigrate or despise, serves to defeat us in the end.” Henry Miller

Most of us want to avoid conflict and will often shy away from having what we see as critical conversations with others. It will help everyone, especially yourself, if you stop viewing it in an emotional context and start to see it as simply giving constructive feedback.  Leaders who are uncomfortable giving constructive feedback (both positive and negative) to team members, peers and even bosses when necessary, should seriously consider if a leadership position is right for them.

Used effectively, constructive feedback can transform team and individual performance, whilst not having that so called difficult conversation can have a huge impact on everyone. You may be allowing an individual to continue giving substandard performance or, even worse, their dysfunctional behaviour may be creating a toxic environment.  Studies have shown that up to 35% of employees leave their jobs because of interpersonal conflict or internal office politics.  A

Feedback is a powerful personal and professional development tool: research from the Corporate Leadership Council shows that timely, accurate informal and formal feedback focused on people’s strengths and potential can increase performance by nearly a third. 

All of that said, to use it properly you need to understand the difference between positive feedback and praise, and negative feedback and criticism.

Praise, such as ‘You’re doing really well’, is to generalised and as a result is far less impactful than


‘Susan, you did a great job preparing that report for the management board yesterday; I really appreciate the way you approached it and the creativity you applied’. Positive feedback gives people a sense that they’re appreciated and their efforts are being noticed.

When giving negative feedback make sure that you do so in private. Telling someone that they got it wrong in the middle of the office only makes them feel resentful, everyone else feel uncomfortable, and you look thoughtless.

Remember, there are two sides to every story and the person receiving the feedback may see things differently to you.  Be prepared to consider your position if they offer facts that you hadn’t considered or weren’t aware of.  Try to keep the feedback about their performance or related behaviours – things they can change or improve – and avoid it becoming too personal.

Don’t save your feedback until the annual performance review. Instead, give it regularly during your monthly 1-2-1s or whenever it’s warranted. Your people deserve to know where they stand; what they’re doing well and areas for development, if any, otherwise how will they improve?

You have to own your feedback; use ‘I’ instead of ‘they’ or ‘the company’.  Stick to the information that you know to be true and avoid ‘third party’ information or rumour.

Be specific.  Your aim should always be to improve their performance, so be specific about what went right (or wrong) and, if possible, give examples. Allow them the chance to consider what they could do to improve the situation before you wade in and tell them how you would do it.  If they come up with the answer they will be so much more committed to it than if you are imposing it on them.

Stay focused on the problem at hand, don’t let the conversation escalate into a litany of complaints and stick to actions not emotions or personalities. Be prepared for a person receiving negative feedback to respond with defensive criticism aimed at you. Listen calmly and engage constructively with them; it’s possible that you may be part of the problem and you must be prepared to discuss this with them openly and honestly.

Avoid implied threats.  Suggesting that someone’s position may be in jeopardy will only cause fear .  Explain that you are giving feedback with the aim that they can avoid moral formal action in the future.

The old ‘sandwich feedback’ method – starting with a positive, then giving some negative and then back to positive – has long been proven not to work.  Most of us pay more attention to anything we see as criticism; this clouds our minds and we fail to even note the positives. This is because we tend to see negative comments as an attack and as such we go into survival mode; stop using our pre-frontal cortex (the part of the brain that’s responsible for reasoning and responding thoughtfully) and allow it to go straight into the social pain center, which just happens to be right next to the physical pain center. In fact, your brain doesn’t differentiate between a physical pain (someone hitting you) and a social pain (criticism or judgement or words like “feedback”). We should be given the time to absorb the positives, without having to cope with things that that may worry or scare us.

Studies show that top performing teams have a ratio of 5:1 positive over negative feedback. Do they perform well because they receive positive feedback, or do they receive positive feedback because they perform well?  Who cares, all we know is that it works, so if you’re interested in creating a team that performs well, give it a try for 60 days and see if you notice a difference.

You need to receive feedback just as much as you need to give it. You need to hear where you’re falling short and, just as importantly, you need to hear when you’ve done well. Set an example to others in the way that you deal with the feedback you receive; it’s what you do, not what you say, that really matters.

So if you want to start making a real difference stop hiding behind any excuses you may be making to yourself about why you aren’t having those difficult conversations, such as:

  • They may feel hurt
  • I could make matters worse
  • It will all blow over
  • I am sure they can deal with it themselves
  • I don’t want them to dislike me
  • I am sure it won’t happen again

Instead, become a feedback expert and encourage others to engage in constructive dialogue.   Watch what it can achieve when used consistently and effectively.

Thank you for reading and please share this post with others who you think may find it helpful.

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This is an extract from the LeaderFocus App for the iPad available on iTunes.  To learn more and to download the LeaderFocus App click on the icon.  Keith Barnwell is a leadership development specialist and executive coach at It’s All About Leadership