When we think of giving feedback, we promptly think about correcting others. But giving feedback is as much about telling others what they are doing right as it is about telling them what they are doing wrong. It’s as much about reinforcing good behaviors as it is about eliminating bad ones. It’s as much about singing praise that comes off easily as it’s about giving constructive criticism that makes you uncomfortable.
If you are a manager or a leader, telling people what they ought to hear is not your job, it’s your responsibility. You are the person standing in the way of hundreds and thousands of employees who count on you every day to grow. Not making an effort to tell your people how they are doing and what they can do better only because it makes you uncomfortable is an act of irresponsibility.
There can be many excuses for not giving feedback - too busy, too uncomfortable, avoiding conflict, saving the relationship, secretly hoping the issue will resolve itself or the person will realize it on their own.
The biggest one is the illusion of transparency - They already know how I feel! No, they don’t. Your employees are not mind-readers, and they can’t feel what you are feeling. It’s obvious to you. Not so much to them. You have to actually tell them out loud.
We have all experienced feedback that’s not particularly helpful, at times mostly useless, and sometimes even counterproductive. Even with the best of intentions, giving feedback is hard. It isn’t intuitive, and most of us aren’t good at it. We may consider ourselves rockstars at this game, but the results are out in the open only if we wish to see them. How is the team performing? Are people in the team doing well or struggling to meet their goals. Are they simply doing their job or aiming for excellence? Are they putting in the effort to correct mistakes or hiding behind them? Do they consider you as their trusted advisor and reach out when they are looking for guidance?
Even when we dare to do the right thing, we may not do it right. The biggest lie to fail to deliver the right kind of feedback is an act of rationalization, an excuse most of us in this position have told ourselves (I am guilty as hell myself) - I have communicated multiple times! It must be them! They don’t have what it takes! Really? Did you take time to understand if the feedback was effective? How did the receiver feel? What did they understand? Do you even know what they are planning to do next? Is it possible that you have fooled yourself into believing “job done!” when you have barely even communicated.
Telling people what they are doing right and wrong is not enough. You need to learn how to do it well. It’s not a guessing game, throwing everything against the wall and hoping something will stick or dashing random darts assuming one will eventually hit the target somewhere. There’s science behind why some things work, and others don’t. It’s not a skill that only a few possess. You can build the ability to do it well too. Only then you can help your employees stay motivated and on the right track.
Yes, it won’t happen the first time. Not even the second time. It will take practice, many, many hours of failed conversations. Frustration from the feeling when people don’t understand what you are trying to tell them and accepting it’s you - you aren’t saying it right. Still, doing it one more time, knowing that you will get better at it.
I've learned largely by doing, and despite my best intentions, I've made countless mistakes. But this is how anything in life goes: You try something. You figure out what worked and what didn't. You file away lessons for the future. And then you get better. Rinse, repeat - Julie Zhuo
We all feel a pit in the stomach when we have to tell others that they aren’t doing as well as they could. Secretly hoping the problem disappears or wishing someone else to be the conveyor of bad news. We adopt delaying tactics - ignoring the problem, keeping too busy with inconsequential work, giving just one more chance with a faint hope they will do well this time. Then finally reacting when nothing works out. Turning a blind eye to the problem doesn’t make it go away. It only makes it worse - it’s either too late or too obvious.
We didn’t act when it was the right time to make corrections, but now we feel right in our reaction to the situation. After all, fixing things when they aren’t going so well is a part of our job. Who has time to think about how it could have been avoided in the first place? Reactionary behavior over actionary thinking is a source of a lot of problems at work. It’s the reason why many managers fail to correct problems before they arise not only feeling self-righteous in their judgment but also in attaching permanent labels. As if, people’s abilities are fixed, and nothing can be done to master new skills or build better behaviors.
So, while giving constructive criticism is a particularly difficult skill to master, even with some small changes, you can make a big difference. Once you learn about the right and wrong way of doing it, you can observe your own behavior and take steps to incrementally build the skills you need to be effective in your role as a manager and a leader.
As we go through the strategies, I will break certain misconceptions about constructive criticism and provide examples on how to do it the right way.
1. Feeling bad is a good thing
The biggest mistake we make when giving constructive criticism is to play nice - trying to protect the receiver's feelings by saying things that don’t add up. Empathy is good. But empathy to avoid hurting the other person is not. Done any way, negative feedback is always going to hurt. Even acknowledging the feedback doesn’t make it any less painful. It’s always a painful reminder of what isn’t going so well for the other person.
Human beings are designed to focus on the negative. And who says feeling bad is a bad thing. “Feeling bad is not just an unfortunate consequence of hearing honest feedback. It is a necessary consequence. Anxiety and sadness serve a key motivational function—they make your brain want to take action to get rid of them,” says Heidi Grant, a social psychologist.
Negative feelings focus attention and resources on the task at hand. They are like fuel for your fire. And taking away a person’s sense of responsibility for a poor performance also robs them of their sense of control —if you aren’t responsible for what you’ve done in the past, how can you possibly improve your performance in the future? - Heidi Grant
In other words, feeling bad is a good thing. A necessary evil to tap into your employee’s energy and channel it into constructive action. This doesn’t mean you need to make people feel bad to get good out of them. The idea is to acknowledge that constructive criticism can never be fun to hear. So, protecting one’s feelings shouldn’t even be a factor preventing you from saying things you need to say.
A terrible strategy adopted by a lot of managers is the shit sandwich - giving negative feedback sandwiched between positive points, layering feedback with “good-bad-good.” It simply doesn’t work. For one, it’s predictable. Even if they don’t know the first time, they can see it coming the next time. Secondly, it comes across as duplicitous, meant to trick them into digesting the bad news. Lastly, people tend to zoom in on the bad while pushing everything positive you said to the side.
Don’t play games. Don’t waste their energy in trying to decode your cryptic message or solve puzzles. You are better off being straightforward - cut to the chase, come to the point.
Constructive criticism example -
Don’t say this: Joe, I know this deal didn’t turn out the way you expected. You tried your best, and it’s not really your fault. Maybe you don’t know how to negotiate yet.
Say this instead: Joe. I want to talk to you about this deal. I noticed that you were not prepared to handle the client’s queries. I hope you understand the impact of losing this deal on our company’s bottom line. What do you think went wrong here?
2. It’s within their reach
A big part of giving constructive criticism is ensuring the other person feels in control of their situation. Even when they feel vulnerable, they shouldn’t engage in self-doubt. Because feeling that they can’t really do much to fix the situation can lead to pessimism - considering the situation as permanent and pervasive as opposed to attaching a more specific and temporary explanation. They can spiral into hopelessness with the fear that nothing they do can fix their situation - helpless, hopeless, not good enough, not worthy enough.
If you want them to take responsibility for their own failures, don’t undermine their sense of control over their own performance. Rather, encourage them to see how a change in their behavior and actions can be useful to get over this temporary bump in the road. Without a sense of how they can make things better, they might either consider themselves as a failure or get defensive in order to protect their self-esteem.
A simple trick that has always worked for me is reminding others about who they wish to become - telling them that they cannot achieve their goals if they overthink their situation as opposed to spending time taking action. It motivates them to let go of the negativity and take a positive spin on their situation. They no longer see constructive criticism as an attack on their identity but rather a means to be the person they wish to become.
Another important factor in giving effective feedback is to stay specific while giving constructive criticism. Don’t be vague or be too broad. Talk about the specific skills, don’t generalize - there’s a huge difference between saying someone is a bad problem solver vs. talking about the specific kind of problems they struggle with. A person is not a failure. Their specific actions (or lack of action) can be attributed to a failure. Keep it about the behavior and the actions, don’t make it about the person.
Constructive criticism example -
Don’t say this: Julia, you are a bad communicator.
Say this instead: Julia, I want to talk to you about the product meeting yesterday. I noticed that you kept quiet during most of the meetings. When you don’t speak up, you not only miss an opportunity to share the information that can add value to the product, but it also makes others assume that you don’t understand the product well. What do you think?
3. Be a student, not a teacher
Feelings of power and authority can mess with your mind. It can make you pass judgment as opposed to showing curiosity to understand the other person’s situation. A team member who’s always late to the morning meetings can be thought of as reckless (judgment) or someone who’s doing their best to manage a difficult situation (curious) - do they have to drop their kids at school before coming to this meeting? Do they have to take care of someone sick at home?
Every situation and the conclusions you draw from it is nothing but based on the story you tell yourself. Your story is a combination of your beliefs and assumptions. Know that the person on the other side may have a completely different story. Refrain from passing judgment. Rather, express your story as an observation and give an opportunity to the other person to share their side of the story. In most cases, your stories won’t match. That’s a good thing. It’s an opportunity for both of you to work together on this. It’s an opportunity for you to listen.
Don’t assume the role of a teacher. It makes your criticism sound like getting a bad grade. And no one likes a bad grade.
Before you tell me how to do it better, before you lay out your big plans for changing, fixing, and improving me, before you teach me how to pick myself up and dust myself off so that I can be shiny and successful—know this: I’ve heard it before. I’ve been graded, rated, and ranked. Coached, screened, and scored. I’ve been picked first, picked last, and not picked at all. And that was just kindergarten - Douglas Stone
Instead, adopt the role of a student who is eager to learn more about the situation, who wants to find solutions, or as Douglas Stone puts it, “The single most important rule about managing the interaction is this: You can’t move the conversation in a more positive direction until the other person feels heard and understood. And they won’t feel heard and understood until you’ve listened. When the other person becomes highly emotional, listen and acknowledge. When they say their version of the story is the only version that makes sense, paraphrase what you’re hearing and ask them some questions about why they think this. If they level accusations against you, before defending yourself, try to understand their view. Whenever you feel overwhelmed or unsure how to proceed, remember that it is always a good time to listen.”
When you do that, you automatically turn off the flight-or-fight tendencies in the other person. It invites them to have a constructive dialogue. When you are open to see the situation as they see it, it makes them reciprocate and they try to understand your viewpoint too. No longer stuck in my view vs. your view, you find shared knowledge in how to move forward. Constructive criticism turns into an opportunity to align on expectations, work on establishing healthy boundaries, and discussing practices that can help the other person learn and grow.
Use this feedback equation for a productive dialogue: Situation + Observation + Impact + Question
Constructive criticism example -
Don’t say this: Bob, you are unreliable.
Say this instead: Bob, I want to discuss your last deliverable (situation). I noticed that you missed your delivery timeline (observation). I hope you understand that not being to deliver your work on time impacts other people who are dependent on your work and delays the overall product (impact). What do you think went wrong here (open-ended question)?
In the end, remember your job as a manager isn’t to fix their problem. Rather, don’t think about fixing something or someone at all. Changing others is outside your control. The best you can do is to guide your employees into doing the right thing. Help them see the reality of their situation, make them feel responsible for their action, and let them make their own decision. Coach them into identifying if it’s a lack of effort that’s causing poor performance, or they need to change certain strategies. Ask them about the steps they are planning to take to go from where they are now to where they want to be.
How do you tell your employees they are doing a good job? Yes, there’s a right and wrong way to praise as well. Since praise comes off easily, most of the time, we don’t focus on how we are coming across to the other person. We kind of assume that whatever we tell the other person, as long as it’s goodwill motivate them to do better. Not really.
3 mistakes to avoid while praising people:
1. Praise is not sincere
No one likes to be praised for insignificant contributions. Reserve it only for genuinely good performance. People feel being manipulated when you praise them for small things or when they realize you are trying to save them from feeling bad about themselves:
“You were really good out there.” Are you forgetting that they messed up the presentation? They know it. Telling them that they did a good job only makes it worse.
“You were terrific in putting together this report in such a short timeframe.” You know it wasn’t a terrific job. It was so simple that anyone in the team could have done it. It makes them feel stupid - “my manager thinks this is my best work” or manipulated. “She is saying this so that she can keep asking me to do such menial tasks at the last minute.”
When your praise is not genuine, your words don’t match your body language - you try to avoid eye contact, fiddle with an object, or take too much time to think about what to say. Your non-verbal behavior sends enough cues to the other person to know that you are insincere in your praise.
Praise for the right reasons - stay sincere.
2. Praising for talent
Telling people how smart they are when they achieve a big milestone or do otherwise great work promotes a belief in the fixed mindset - talent and success is all that matters. How do you think these employees will behave when things aren’t working out so well for them?
They will refuse to acknowledge mistakes. They will consider failures as a reflection of their incompetence. They will be reluctant to take up new challenges with the fear that they might fail. They will try to say and do things that showcase their smartness. Everything will be about validating their brilliance.
The right kind of praise isn’t based on applauding people for their talent. It’s given with the purpose of promoting a growth mindset - skills and abilities can be built with the right kind of effort. It requires praising people for their effort, persevering through difficult task, trying new strategies, seeking help, and staying determined to achieve their goals. And why is this better?
Because when people are praised for their effort and hard work, they take joy in learning instead of proving themselves. They aren’t afraid to step outside their comfort zone. They embrace challenges without fear of failure. They are quick to accept mistakes as mistakes don’t reflect on their competence. They are useful signals to do something better. They don’t hide behind their failures and setbacks. Rather they treat them as an opportunity to learn - what went wrong, what could I have done better, what did this failure teach me about myself?
Praise the right thing - effort and hard work, not talent.
Positive feedback example -
Don’t say this: Great work, Dorathy! You are very smart!
Say this instead: Great work, Dorathy! I really liked how you applied multiple strategies to make this project successful. Even though there were many challenges along the way, you did not give up. I also liked how you took constant feedback from the team and used it for making continuous progress.
3. Being too vague
A fleeting comment, “Great job! Excellent work! You are a rockstar!” isn’t really helpful. People can’t connect their behaviors and actions to this well-meaning praise. How can they repeat or build upon the desired behavior when they don’t even know what specific part of their action was useful?
Emphasize the specific behaviors. Clearly state what part of their action was praiseworthy. When people understand the impact of their positive actions, they are motivated to repeat them, or they try to achieve further excellence in their work. Being specific also goes a long way in suggesting that you are thinking as a manager and really care about giving valuable feedback to your employees. It’s a stepping stone into establishing trust and building better relationships with your team.
Positive feedback example -
Don’t say this: Great work, Ron!
Say this instead: Ron, it was amazing to see how prepared you were today to handle all client queries. It seems like you spent a lot of time studying the client requirements and preparing a proposal that’s a win-win for all of us. Great Job! Keep it up!
When giving feedback:
1. Reinforce good behaviors and try to eliminate bad ones.
2. Telling people what they are doing right and wrong is not enough. You need to learn how to do it well.
3. Giving effective feedback requires practice. You cannot master the skill in a few days.
4. It’s your responsibility as a manager to give constructive criticism even if it makes you uncomfortable.
5. Don’t try to protect their feelings by saying things that don’t add up. Your job as a manager isn’t to please them. It’s to tell them the things they ought to hear, even if it hurts.
6. Don’t undermine their sense of control over their own performance. Encourage them to take responsibility for their own actions. Vulnerability is a good thing; self-doubt is not.
7. When giving constructive criticism, talk about specific skills. Don’t generalize.
8. Keep it about the behavior and the actions, don’t make it about the person.
9. Refrain from passing judgment. Share your story as an observation and listen intently to understand their point of view.
10. Invite them to have a constructive dialogue.
11. Don’t try to fix them or change them. Coach them to make the right decision for themselves.
12. Meaningful praise is sincere and isn’t intended to manipulate others.
13. Don’t praise people for their intelligence. Praise them for their effort and hard work.
14. Don’t be vague. Give praise that can be connected to a specific behavior or action.
Also published here.