5 Ways to Take the Pain Out of Giving Feedback

One of the most distasteful activities leaders face is giving negative feedback. The reason? When done well, it can still ruffle feathers. When done poorly, it’s a disaster. No one likes engaging in activities that often aren’t appreciated.

Giving great feedback isn’t easy. It’s tricky, it’s not much fun and to top it off, none of us were born knowing how to give great feedback. We have to learn how over time – often the hard way.

If you’ve struggled with giving feedback before, here are some tricks to get you pointed in the right direction quickly.

Identify Your Feedback Bias

When it comes to giving feedback, leaders tend to fall into two categories: they’re usually too quick (e.g. unprepared/knee jerk response) to give feedback or too slow (e.g. allowing too much time to pass, or never get around to it). In both cases, your lack of feedback effectiveness can make the situation worse instead of better. The first step is to identify which end of the spectrum you start from. Are you too proactive or too reactive? When you know your default setting, it’s easier to shift from there.

Avoid Common Feedback Pitfalls

Part of a leader’s job is to give appropriate feedback in appropriate ways to the right people at the right time. But there can be several pitfalls along the way. Here are some of the most common:

  • Giving feedback in the heat of the moment when emotions are high – give yourself a cooling off period if you need one!
  • Being unprepared when giving important feedback – decide what you want to accomplish before you begin.
  • Declining to give necessary feedback due to fear, intimidation or procrastination.
  • Not giving enough positive feedback – if you have the reputation for being a Negative Nancy, you’ll always start feedback conversations at a deficit.

Ace Positive Feedback

Let’s be honest, it’s not impending positive feedback that keeps people up at night. But that said, the quality of your positive feedback will determine the responsiveness to your constructive feedback. Great positive feedback should be:

  • Quick – to immediately reinforce the positive action.
  • Often – to sustain motivation. (If you ever wonder whether you are giving enough positive feedback, you aren’t!)
  • Specific – to make the action easy to replicate in the future.

Make Negative Feedback Constructive

Negative feedback is by far the most tricky type of feedback. Keep in mind that negative feedback shouldn’t be personal – it shouldn’t be about the person but about the behavior or action. To make negative feedback constructive:

  • Create a “safe zone” – Let the other person know you’re here to share some input with them, not attack them. Make it easy for them to listen and overcome their initial defensiveness.
  • Make it specific – Make it simple for the other person to understand how they can improve next time (and give them positive feedback when they do!).
  • Tie it to something the other person wants – Show that by following the feedback, the other person is more likely to achieve something that is important to them.

Keep Growing!

One of my favorite books on feedback is Thanks for the Feedback by Douglas Stone an Sheila Heen. Crucial Accountability by the Vital Smarts authors is another. Both have too many helpful tips to share here. There are many other books, articles and resources as well. Bottom line: giving feedback won’t become easy overnight but more help is available.

As leaders, it’s our responsibility not only to give feedback, but to give great feedback. If you stumble, don’t give up. Keep trying. The better your feedback, the greater your influence.

Nathan Magnuson is an executive leadership consultant, speaker and author of the books Stand Out! and Ignite Your Leadership Expertise. Click to see the exciting ways Nathan is helping organizations and teams become more effective with Leadership-in-a-Box.