by Paul Matthews

In a nutshell

1. What is feedback?

A small proportion of the feedback we receive from other people is given by them on purpose. This kind of personal feedback can be incredibly useful and is the subject of this topic.

  • Feedback is for the benefit of the receiver. Its purpose is to help them grow and develop, and reinforce positive behaviour or actions.
  • Criticism always benefits the giver. In most cases, it is done to make the giver feel in some way superior to the receiver. It is often negative and judgemental. It is in many cases subjective rather than objective and it is usually destructive.
  • Positive feedback is also known as ‘praise’ and is mainly used as a motivator. It recognises the good work that someone has done and rewards them for it.
  • Constructive feedback is letting someone know that they did not do something in an appropriate way, or that they did something incorrectly. It includes information to enable the individual to improve their behaviour or the way in which they do something.


2. Why feedback is important

Regular, good quality feedback is one of the most important ingredients in building effective working relationships and in getting things done. It can be used for a variety of management purposes, including to

  • Influence someone to do something differently or to change their approach
  • Show people that you appreciate what they did and give them recognition, which helps to motivate them
  • Get information from your manager, team or others regarding your own performance and behaviour
  • Improve the quality of an individuals’ work or the work of teams
  • Show people that you value them and their input
  • Help people back onto the right target when they have misunderstood a goal or task
  • Build and maintain relationships with an open and honest dialogue, fostering trust and support
  • Set and explain expectations regarding behaviour and performance, enabling people to meet and exceed their objectives
  • Coach your successor.


3. How well do I give or receive feedback?

Here are two questionnaires to help you understand where you already do well, and what areas of feedback may require some improvement.

  • How well do I give feedback? This questionnaire helps you to measure your current skills in giving feedback and indicates the areas which need the most improvement.
  • How well do I receive feedback? This self-assessment will help you measure your current skills in receiving feedback and identify areas needing improvement.


4. Tools for giving feedback

Giving feedback is an art, but the good news is that it is an art that anyone can learn.

A goal is not necessarily a tool for feedback, but it is an essential precursor. Feedback needs to be based on an evaluation against an established standard or set of expectations.

We very often want to give feedback right in the moment, and this timeliness can also greatly improve the effectiveness of feedback. Problems can arise, however, when we just unthinkingly react.

When you plan to give feedback in a more structured and planned way, there is a very simple eight-step process you can follow that will help things run more smoothly.

You should also remember that feedback should be balanced, objective, observed, specific and timely.


5. Important principles

When you are giving feedback, there are some important principles to hold in mind and elements you need to include if it is to be effective.

  • Good feedback should ideally be given as soon as possible after the issue or event to be discussed, unless emotions are still running high.
  • Positive feedback can be given just about anywhere, but constructive feedback is best given away from others.
  • Be specific – ensure that you have examples of the behaviour that is to be reinforced or modified.
  • Your feedback should not label or describe the recipient; it should focus on the performance or behaviour.
  • Be clear and unambiguous, keeping as brief and to the point as possible.
  • Own the feedback; never palm off the responsibility for a constructive message onto another person.
  • To be balanced, you can start with a positive comment and then move into the constructive feedback.
  • Feedback should be given frequently, not yearly or just occasionally.
  • Consider which of your people need more feedback to feel comfortable, and which need less.
  • Focus on the solution, not the problem, and on the future, not the past.


6. Positive or reinforcement feedback

It is important to give positive feedback just as carefully as constructive feedback, so that it is not considered lip service.

  • People need to understand exactly what it was they did right and how they can continue to do that.
  • They need to be encouraged and the behaviour reinforced with outcomes of their behaviour that they might not have realised happened.
  • They may need support and advice on how they can repeat the behaviour and when it is and isn’t appropriate to do so.
  • Be sure to remember to give positive feedback when something has been done well.


7. Constructive feedback

Most people find the giving of constructive feedback to be considerably more difficult than handing out positive feedback. This is largely because of their fear over the possible reactions of the recipient and the effect it may have on the relationship. Remember that considered and constructive feedback is a gift, not a punishment.

  • Put some thought into the planning stage, going through some questions and making sure you have examples, that you know what outcome you want, what reactions you might get, where and when to give the feedback and so on.
  • Avoid universal, generalising words and words that imply a duty; also avoid asking ‘why’, as this might elicit a justification.
  • Use your body language to build rapport with the person.
  • Be aware of the drawbacks of the feedback sandwich and avoid using it all the time.
  • Try to tell the person what they could do instead of an unwanted behaviour, rather than just telling them not to do something.
  • Listen to any feedback the other person may have for you and remember that it’s a two-way process.


8. Difficult feedback

Some feedback can be very difficult to give, particularly if it involves personal habits. However, if other employees have complained to you, and you don’t give the feedback, they will, and they may do it in ways that could lead to claims of harassment or bullying.

  • Don’t imagine the worst – beforehand, visualise everything turning out well.
  • Seek permission to provide the feedback.
  • Give the person a chance to brace themselves for the feedback, but don’t prolong matters with small talk.
  • Own the feedback.
  • Where possible, attach it to a business issue.
  • Ensure that the person understands the consequences.
  • Follow up.
  • Training does not offer a way out of having the feedback conversation.
  • If the problem has cultural and diversity implications, be aware of this and, if necessary, consult HR.


9. Receiving feedback

Receiving feedback is an extremely important business skill, necessary for your own personal growth, learning and development. If you are unable to take feedback on board, chances are you will not progress as quickly as you might like.

  • Assume that the person giving the feedback has a positive intention and they want to help, even if they are not going about it in the best possible way.
  • Listen carefully and ask for clarification and examples, where necessary.
  • Thank the feedback provider and maintain a positive body language.
  • Keep an open mind.
  • Remember that you have the right to go away and think about it, and this is the best course of action.


10. Seeking out feedback

Make it a habit to seek out feedback every day, so that you can continue to learn, improve and progress.

  • Spend time each day thinking about what you could have approached differently to improve the outcome of situations that you did not feel entirely satisfied with.
  • Start to become more aware of the behaviour of others around you and what their body language is telling you.
  • When considering who to ask, think carefully about where you can get the best quality feedback, but be realistic in your expectations.
  • Be aware that some people might want time to think about the feedback that they want to give you.
  • If you are a senior person within a company, you may need to find a way to break down the barriers and let your team know that you appreciate feedback.