The Tricky Business Of Giving Feedback

We coach, develop and work alongside leaders and teams to shift ideas on leadership and provide the skills and tools needed to grow teams.

A lifetime of reflection has led me to understand that I, like most others find some feedback very hard to embrace while other feedback can slip off of me like water off of a duck’s back. I also find some feedback is easier to give than others.

You too may see giving feedback to others is a core part of your role as manager or team leader. Most of us do. After all, research by Zenger & Folkman and others has shown the people usually want to know from their managers how they are doing and how they can improve.

But not all feedback is created equal. There are different types of feedback; some are easier to receive while others can be quite hard to hear. Not surprisingly, feedback that is easier to receive tends to be easier to give, and feedback that is hard to receive often is more challenging to give.

Let’s first consider the difference between expected and unexpected feedback.


Generally feedback is easier to receive when that feedback it is expected. It also makes it easier to give feedback when the giver knows the receiver is expecting it. This is why we encourage organisations and leaders to build a culture of continuous feedback. Once team members have the expectation of receiving feedback they find it is easier to both receive it but also to give it. Anxiety and defensiveness come down and we are more open to it.

Better still is when feedback has been requested. By asking for feedback, the receiver is giving permission to the other party to provide feedback, but that request comes with a proviso; the receiver wants feedback to be useful and constructive, not destructive. But more on this below…

Previously we wrote about how we strongly advise people managers to make a practice of asking for feedback.

How you do this can make a real difference between niceties and real value. For example, giving team members a heads up that you expect feedback will improve your chances of getting it. And team members need to understand that you will keep asking until you get something, and when you do receive it, that you won’t react or get defensive. And importantly that you will do something with it. Our favourite question for managers to ask is: “Can you give me one suggestion to improve how I support you in your role”

Now let’s look at positive versus critical types of feedback.


Positive feedback is the easiest to give, but sadly many managers seem to minimise this or don’t maximise its value. We may make excuses, like ‘I don’t want to embarrass them’ or ‘why should I have to thank someone for their job?’ We previously wrote an article about positive feedback, its benefits to both the receiver and the giver, and a failsafe method for doing it well.


Let’s turn ourselves to the harder feedback to give; critical feedback. And let’s assume that we are giving feedback to help someone change or improve somehow, so let’s call it ‘constructive feedback’. Unfortunately, just because we have the intent to ‘help someone change or improve somehow’ does not mean that the receiver sees the feedback as constructive. But more on that below….

We see constructive feedback as following into two quite distinct camps.

The first is ‘task improvement’ related. The second is about ‘relationship improvement’ or behaviour.


This is where we are giving another person suggestions on how they can improve to how they conduct or complete a task, or something that is more technical and less behavioural.

For example, task improvements would include how to write a better report, how to cook a tastier meal, how to solve a problem, how to give a better presentation, and so on.

Where we have some feedback to help someone improve how they conduct a technical task, we might use the Feed Forward, Ask – Assess – Ask approach.

To explain this feed forward approach we might give this example:

Manager/Coach ASK:

How did the presentation go today? What went well? What would you do differently? [Invite reflection and exploration]

Manager/Coach ASSESS:

  • whether your feedback has already been mentioned in their reflection.
  • whether it’s worth adding your own feedback to their reflection. Will it make a real difference and will in be well received?
  • if it might adversely affect their performance by lowering their confidence.
  • Whether the feedback actions are doable for them. (e.g. Am I asking Donald Trump to be kinder?)

Manager/Coach ASK: Assuming you feel your constructive feedback is still important to share with them, ask permission and then provide a suggestion.

E.g. “Would it be ok if I made a suggestion?” [wait for response] “I wonder if you might try…”


A more challenging area to give feedback is when we are dealing with behaviours or impacts on others or relationships. People are usually sensitive to being given feedback on behaviour or their impact on others. They may feel you are seeing things unfairly, or one-sided and stating things that are not fact, or haven’t included their perspective.

Our suggestion, when faced with this type of situation is to take a very considered and different approach.

For example, perhaps you want to give feedback to someone who has a habit of interrupting you when you are speaking. Or perhaps you have observed that a person is not collaborating well, and tends to make important decisions without consulting others that would want to have input.


In a behaviour or relationship feedback scenario, we suggest first sharing your concern succinctly from your own perspective using what we call an ‘I statement’:

“I noticed that…” ,or “I am concerned that…” , or “I am frustrated by….”

For example you might say:

“ Sean, I am frustrated that when I was speaking you interrupted me on more than one occasion, making me feel like what I had to say is not important”.


“Monique, I am concerned about the impact on your team if you make team decisions alone.”

Note that we are focusing on the impact as you see it, not stating your view as fact.


Immediately following this initial statement, we invite a response by asking:

“How do you see that?”, or “What is your perspective?”, or “What do you think?”

Depending on how reasonably their response is, you may be able to prompt self-reflection and together problem solve to reach a satisfactory outcome.

However, some people can feel threatened and take it personally when given feedback relating to behaviour or relationships, as if you are making a personal attack. When this happens they may react, become defensive, make excuses, come out accusing others, or even attack you. [Note that at times this reaction may indeed be justified. Does the receiver have an emotional reaction because they see you as being a hypocrite? Could it be you have exhibited the same behaviour in the past, or have failed to understand the wider context?]

When a person reacts adversely, it is important that you avoid arguing. Instead bring it back to the concern you expressed. Depending on the situation, repeat back what you have heard to make sure they feel listened to and acknowledge their feelings.

  1. Restate your concern and remind the person of your positive intent.
  2. Ask again for their view, and try to work positively to an agreement

If this doesn’t work, you may need to take a break in order to lower the heat.


What is the difference? We often ask this question and not surprisingly, everyone has a different version. Here is how we define the difference:

Destructive feedback is feedback that describes what you don’t want or what isn’t good. For example:

“You’re not a team player”, or “Your attire was inappropriate”, or “You came across quite arrogantly”, or “You intimidate others on the team”, etc.

Constructive feedback refers to something useful; a positive suggestion, an idea or opportunity that could help make something better. For example:

“I am concerned that others in the team may not have an opportunity to input into your decisions – What are your thoughts on that?….[wait for their response].

If you find the need to still make a suggestion, couch it in the positive: “Can I suggest checking in with a couple of your colleagues to test your ideas when it comes to important decisions in the future?”

‘You came across quite arrogantly’ could be turned into a constructive conversation by:

“I’m a little worried about how you came across to the rest of the team in our last team meeting. – What are your thoughts?”….[wait for their response and repeat back what you’ve heard]. “Can I tell you what has worked for me? I like to ask others in the room what thoughts they might have or information they can contribute”


Feedback is a tricky business. But it is an area that we can, and should work to improve both how we give it and how we receive it.

Our suggestions:

  1. Make sure feedback is expected. Avoid giving feedback out of the blue.
  2. Distinguish between task and relationship (technical or behavioural) feedback.
  3. Understand the different approaches you might take for each.
  4. Be clear how you frame your feedback so that it is a constructive conversation
  5. Seek feedback for yourself and encourage others to ask for the same.
Share This