LME012 – How to give feedback.

As a manager, you need to know how to give feedback. It‘s your job to help your employees to develop and to improve. They need constructive feedback on their performance as well as on their behaviour – both positive and negative.

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How to give feedback

How to give feedback?
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The Problem often: How to give feedback?

Understandably, many executives try to avoid giving feedback. They often don’t now how to give feedback and it is often not easy to give it openly. Also, many find it difficult to ask for feedback. But feedback is most important in leadership. It’s the best tool to help your staff to develop and it is a great way to support employee motivation – if done correctly.

Finally, if you critize, you might trigger rejection, displeasure and anger. It can be painful and it can lead to embarrassing situations, especially if people’s self-perception is challenged or you confront someone with unpleasant truths.

Feedback situations are therefore a challenge for both the one who gives feedback and the other who receives the feedback.

Do you mind if I give you feedback?

Everyone loves to be praised and to be confirmed. Who doesn‘t like to be praised?

With criticism, on the other hand, it’s different. If someone asks you,

“Do you mind if I give you some feedback?”

You’ll probably say

“No, of course not!”

… and you ask for the feedback. But deep inside of you, it’s hard for you to hear negative feedback. And let’s face it: it will be negative.

Praise and criticism

If someone explicitly asks for permission to give you feedback, he doesn‘t just want to praise, he mostly wants to criticize. But criticism questions our self-esteem. It triggers our defense mechanisms, because we believe our reputation is in danger. Actually, we want to be praised, but not judged.

That’s why when you give feedback, it’s less important what you say than how you say it.

Formulate feedback subjectively

Therefore, formulate your feedback subjectively as far as possible.

Instead of:

“John, you weren‘t well prepared in this conversation with our major customer. You answered his questions quite evasively!”

This statement claims objectivity.

“It’s the way I say it. John was not prepared.”

It would be better to formulate the feedback in an “I“-statement:

“John, I had the impression that you weren‘t well prepared for the conversation with our major customer. It also seemed to me as if you had answered his questions evasively.”

An “I“-statement doesn‘t claim to be the absolute truth. It only reflects what you have felt, seen, heard or experienced. These kind of statements are received as:

“That’s how I perceived you.”

Don’t critize in public

Feedback is intended to help the other person to reconcile his self-perception and his external perception, and to change the future behavior when necessary. You can much easier achieve this with “I“-statements.

I still remember my school days vividly. I was very good at maths and physics. However, I was lousy with learning languages, especially English. My grades in English mostly fluctuated between 4 and 5. In our German school system the grade „1“ is the best and 5 and 6 are the worst. Compared to the US grade system a „1“ would be an „A“ and a „5“ would correspond to a “D“, “E“ or “F“.

As you can surely imagine, I was terrified of having to write English class papers. But the worst was getting the paper back from the teacher. That was deeply demotivating and humiliating.

The process was always the same: all students were in the classroom. The teacher called the name of the student. Then he went through the rows and handed over the corrected paper and he shouted the grade loud and clear:

John – 3+

Brian  – 2-

Bernd –  5“

Simultanously, when he looked at me and shouted my grade, he mostly shook his head.

Don‘t do that. If you criticize someone, please don‘t do it in front of others.

To be criticized is almost always offensive to the criticized, even if it‘s well intentioned. That’s why you criticize, if possible, always in private and not in public.

Feedback should be constructive.

Praise as well as criticise. Standardised praise as well as generalizing criticism aren‘t helpful.

“John, your reports are always far too long. It doesn’t work like that.”

John has no practical use from this feedback. Are all his reports really far too long? Any report he has made so far? Wasn’t there this interim report a year ago. That was only one page long – so, John thinks: my boss is incorrect: my reports aren‘t always too long.

The better way to give this feedback is:

“John, your final report in this project is over 200 pages long. Our customer doesn‘t want and doesn’t need such an in depth analysis. In future, 20 pages will be fully sufficient for such final reports.”

Now John knows what he can improve. That is conctructive feedback.

The same also applies to praise:

“John, you’re doing a great job here with us!”

It’s a positive feedback. It‘s a compliment, but it’s very vague. Does the boss say this only to create a favourable climate? Does he really know exactly what I’m doing?

A constructive compliment is much more helpful and honest:

“John, you recently solved this interface problem for the MLG group very quickly. Excellent work. Helping our biggest client in such a short time has left a lasting impression on them – and also on me. You did a great job.”

This praise helps much more because it‘s constructive. Now John understands precisely what he did well.

Don’t critize too many points!

Very often managers critize too many point at once

If you give negative feedback, don‘t criticize too much at once. Otherwise, the person is overwhelmed and doesn’t know how to start improving.

Here’s an example: John has just made an important presentation for a customer. His boss gives him the following feedback:

“John, this was all too fast for me. You talked so quickly. There were far too many slides, too much text and only few pictures. Then you also made jumps, so I couldn‘t follow. And then, you constantly looked at the slides instead of looking to the people –  and the design of your slides: Our CI was missing. Our logo was not visible at all… “

And he’s going on like that.

This feedback isn‘t helpful. It overwhelms John with information. What is it exactly he needs to change the next time he’s going to do a presentation like this? With what should he start to improve? Apparently he did everything wrong.

It would be better to tell him only about one of the important mistakes, for example:

“John, I couldn‘t follow your presentation. I was lost after five minutes. What I observed is, that the other participants also seemed to have problems to understand what you were talking about. We were simply overwhelmed by the high number of slides in such a short time.”

The feedback here is: too many slides. This allows John to improve his next presentation.Also very important:

Give timely feedback!

If you give feedback – be it praise or criticism – do it in a timely manner. Then the situation is still fresh in memory.

However, the one who receives feedback must be able to accept it. His mind must be open to understand and to accept it. Especially when it comes to criticism.

Assume your employee has just made a big mistake – a huge blunder – he recognizes it and is – understandably – depressed and devastated. Then it may be timely, but it‘s not the right time to criticize him right now. Sensitivity is needed when giving him feedback.

In principle: There’s a time for everything. Find the right time: The criticized must be open to feedback. Otherwise it will not help. But don‘t let too much time pass between the behavior and your feedback. The more timely the feedback the more helpful it is.

5 important tips how to give feedback

Let me summarize what you should pay attention to when giving feedback:

  • Formulate Feedback in an „I“ statement
  • Give Feedback, especially criticism, preferably in privat.
  • Make it specific and contructive.
  • Don‘t give too much feedback at once.
  • Give feedback promptly, but only if the other person is open to it.


The inspiring quote

“Criticism, like rain, should be gentle enough to nourish a man’s growth without destroying his roots.”

Frank A. Clark