The art of giving feedback

| September 11, 2015

As a manager, do you enjoy giving your staff feedback? And as an employee, do you enjoy receiving it? It’s time to stop interpreting feedback as criticism and instead see it as an opportunity to learn and progress.

What do your employees feel when you ask the question “Can I give you a little bit of feedback?”

Do they lean forward, eager for some morsel of insight that will bring light to a dark corner of their self-awareness or do they sigh inwardly and prepare themselves for the infliction of death-by-a-thousand-character-flaws and stuff-ups?

Getting good, constructive feedback is critical if we’re to make changes to our behaviour – as any improvement, in essence, really is.  It’s so critical, in fact, that a central part of almost every Special Forces selection process is the deliberate withholding of it.  The lack of any feedback on how the candidate’s performance so far has been viewed by the selection staff plays on their mind and adds to the self-induced stress that is the hallmark of this brutal process.

And yet very few managers I work with have ever been trained to do it, let alone do it well.

More than a few managers I’ve spoken to advocate the Sandwich Technique (pick your own word for the filling) where the area for improvement is tucked neatly out of the way between some irrelevant and contrived ‘strengths’.  The challenges with this technique are many but include:

  • Narcissists will hear only the good stuff, thinking that the bad was in there just to keep them from floating TOO high.
  • Pessimists will hear only the bad, then probably feel worse because you tried to make them feel better with some unrelated good point.

Sometimes the ‘feedback’ becomes more of a shopping list of what a manager thinks would make his subordinate more like him, but dressed up as solid parental advice such as “you need to be more assertive!”

It’s worth, at this point, looking at what feedback is NOT.  It’s not mentoring, nor is it coaching, however it’s a critical skill for someone in this role.

Feedback has one purpose and one purpose only – to inform someone’s decision to maintain a particular pattern of behaviour or alter it.  In other words, it can be used to reinforce behaviour that is beneficial to the individual and the team or it can be used to help draw attention to behaviour that is detrimental to individual or team performance.

Here are some concepts I’ve found to be of value in helping me to provide constructive feedback that creates positive effects in morale and performance:


There is a strong correlation between the level of trust between the two parties and the value placed on any feedback shared.  When trust is absent, barriers and boundaries are vigorously defended, and any feedback – even positive – will bounce off and be largely ignored.

If you reckon your employees trust you then consider yourself fortunate. According to a survey by global HR consultancy Towers Watson, only 36% of employees trust their management, and anecdotal evidence from clients and managers I work with supports this.

If you’re responsible for managing or supervising others, building trust should be something you work on every day without fail because trust takes time to build but only a moment to destroy.

Thinkcause and effect

Your objective in providing feedback is to give a clear and objective description of the behaviour you observed (the cause) and the outcomes of that behaviour (the effect) whether that effect could be described as positive or negative.

An example might be “I’ve noticed that when people contribute their ideas in our staff meetings, you have a tendency to point the flaws and negative aspects, sometimes in a very blunt fashion.  It’s now reached a point where I know people have some great ideas but they’re simply not willing to put them on the table for discussion.”

This applies just as much in situations where you’re relating positive feedback.  Simply saying “good job, keep it up” isn’t really feedback; saying “I’ve heard a number of people comment on how you’ve helped them to complete their monthly reports using the new template.  It’s helped take the load off me and allow me to focus on finishing a couple of overdue tasks so thank you very much”, however, is as it makes it clear what they’re doing and the positive impact of that behaviour which is a strong incentive to keep on doing it.

Labels are for containers, not people

It’s in our nature to apply labels to things and to people; indeed it would be impossible to organise the vast array of information we process every day without doing it.  We may describe some people as “friendly”, for example, others as “shy” and so on.  What’s important is to be aware of the labels we’re applying to someone and how those labels could shape not just our perception of them but their own perception of themselves.

Many will be familiar with Rosenthal and Jacobsen’s study where they told teachers that a certain class had attained a score that placed them in the to 20% of performers and so were expected to excel in school.  At the end of the year, those same students – who had actually been picked at random – were found to be approximately 15 IQ points higher than their counterparts.  The same principle applies in the workplace. How many labels do you apply to people that may limit their professional horizons?

Prepare for pushback

You’re about to make observations about another persons behaviour and for many people, that can be a painful experience as they interpret it as a personal attack.  Some people may deny the behaviour, some may debate it, some may try to deflect it to other people and others may try to justify their actions so it can be well-worth preparing in advance for what you would do in each of these situations.  The key is to make the feedback about the provision of information rather than opinion and to have evidence to back up the information you’re providing them.

Find the fix

This is where feedback then leads into other disciplines like mentoring or coaching.  It may be that a more directive – mentoring – approach is required where you dictate the desired behaviour; other situations may warrant a coaching approach where the goal is to have the individual identify, with your assistance, a way to make progress.  In general, involvement in developing the fix leads to more engagement with its execution.

When we’re helping people to adapt their behaviour, one adage worth bearing in mind is that ‘we don’t stop doing something, we start doing something else’.  Their behaviour in any situation – such as jumping in to point out the flaws in someone’s idea – is generally a habitual pattern in response to a trigger and so simply electing to “stop doing that” will soon derail.  The key to helping them find the fix is to help them identify a new behaviour in response to that trigger, then find a way to condition it to the point of it being their new habitual response.

Set the example

Feedback isn’t so much a process as a culture and the best way to create that culture is to be the living embodiment of it.  Providing feedback isn’t the private purview of management, nor should it be something that gets done according to the annual performance review schedule.

Every high-performing team I’ve worked with, or been part of, has had a clear understanding that providing, and listening to, constructive feedback was part of the price of entry.  Your job as a leader is to train people to do it well, to demonstrate how to provide it with compassion and how to receive it with gratitude and courage.


Adam O’Donnell is a former Special Forces soldier who now, through his business Corporate Commando, helps business leaders achieve more with the resources they already have, and by creating an environment where people use their initiative to find solutions rather than excuses, creates time and space for senior executives to focus on strategic growth rather than tactical firefighting. He has worked for companies including NAB, Glaxo Smith Kline, Fuji Xerox, Lifesaving Victoria, and the Bureau of Meteorology.