The art of giving feedback

The art of giving feedback arises in training workshops on change management, team development, performance management, delegation and coaching. Here is a summary of the key points to bear in mind. 

Feedback defined

Effective feedback means “Paying attention and giving high-quality feedback from an empathic place, stepping into the other person’s shoes, appreciating his or her experience, and helping to move that person into a learning mode” (Kate Ludeman).

We can minimise stress and conflict by giving feedback on performance in a positive way. It should be seen as a way to increase self-awareness, offer options and encourage learning rather than being judgemental and critical.

Learning theory is explored in these blogs: and 

Feedback can hurt

In an article on the art and science of giving and receiving criticism at work, Courtney Seiter said: “We remember criticism strongly but inaccurately if it conflicts with our self-image. Negativity bias means we remember negative things more strongly”.

We should remember that we are different in what feedback we want and how we react to feedback.

Research by Naomi Eisenberger has shown that the brain treats social pain much like physical pain. Giving positive feedback can activate reward centres the same or more than financial windfalls. There appears to be five social rewards and threats that are deeply important to the brain: status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness. People can experience feedback as an attack on their “status,” which to the brain is perceived like a physical attack.

Feedback for motivation

Feedback is important for motivation. The Progress Principle study found that there were three types of feedback:

    • Nourishing events that were uplifting – such as praise or emotional support
    • Catalytic events that helped work tasks – such as training or resources being provided
    • Progress events – receiving feedback on progress in meaningful work

The study found that employees’ “best” days involved progress events.

Offer a feedback sandwich

Some people suggest a feedback sandwich – with positive layers wrapping up the more critical material. So start with a positive comment and appreciation for effort or work done well. Then mention the areas requiring change and improvement. Keep language descriptive rather than evaluative.

Ask for explanations and offer alternatives. Always leave them with a choice. Be careful on the timing of your feedback – as soon as possible but pick your moment. Ideally, feedback should be given on a regular basis. There are good ideas in “instant praisings” and “catching people doing things right” in the One Minute Manager.

Create an appreciative environment

Psychologist Nancy Kline found that a five-to-one ratio of appreciation to criticism helps people to think for themselves. She argued that change takes place best in the context of genuine praise. She said that society teaches us that to be positive is to be naïve and vulnerable, whereas to be critical is informed, buttressed and sophisticated.

And we need to be aware of the impact of our own emotions on those around us 

How to provide feedback

You should comment on the behaviour (which can be changed) and NOT the person or personality (which cannot be changed). Use empathy to try to understand the person’s perspective by asking questions and creating joint ownership. Consider positives as well as negatives. Make it constructive – how could it be done better? Build confidence – don’t destroy it. Make practical suggestions. Agree action points for the future (and follow up). Extract learning points for everyone.

The content of your feedback should be information specific (i.e. provide examples), issue focused and based on observation. Your manner will be important too – you need to be direct and sincere and “own” the feedback.

Geoffrey James offers 10 rules for giving feedback:

  1. Make negative feedback unusual
  2. Don’t stockpile negative feedback
  3. Never use feedback to vent
  4. Don’t email negative feedback
  5. Start with an honest compliment
  6. Uncover the root of the problem
  7. Listen before you speak (Most people can’t learn unless they first feel that they’ve been heard).
  8. Ask questions that drive self-evaluation
  9. Coach the behaviours you would like to see
  10. Be willing to accept feedback too

 Feedback and Millennials (generational differences)

An HBR article “Your employees want the negative feedback you hate to give” by Jack Zenger in 2014 reported on the results of research into 899 individuals, 49% from the U.S.

The research showed people want corrective feedback even more than praise, if it’s provided in a constructive manner. By roughly a three to one margin, people believe it does even more to improve their performance than positive feedback.

Generally speaking, the older they were, the more feedback people wanted of both kinds. The Boomers showed a much stronger preference for giving positive feedback and for receiving negative feedback than the other two groups (while the young Gen Yers don’t seem to feel comfortable giving even positive feedback yet.)

Understand the change cycle

Change is rarely immediate. There is a change cycle.

Lewin’s model of change suggested that first you needed to help people “unfreeze” by reducing threat and creating psychological safety before changing the behaviour and re-freezing.

“Feedback is a gift. Ideas are the currency of our next success. Let people see you value both feedback and ideas” Jim Trinka and Les Wallace

Summary – Seven criteria for effective feedback 

  1. Feedback provider must be credible
  2. Feedback provider is trusted
  3. Feedback conveyed with good intentions
  4. Timing and circumstance of feedback must be appropriate
  5. Feedback given in an interactive manner
  6. Feedback message is clear
  7. Feedback is helpful