What Does Your Feedback Really Say?

By David Hassell, CEO of 15Five

While receiving certain responses can be a wonderful thing that can propel people to new heights of success, feedback given without careful consideration can also produce lasting damage. Because the effect can easily become unintended, misinterpreted or lost in translation, it’s crucial to take an extra moment to consider how the framing of our feedback might be received by the person we’re offering it to.

So, consider the following common situations that you don’t want to get trapped in:

1. Your Narrative is Confusing

Lets consider these two typical workplace examples:

– A manager taps Bert heartily on the back saying “Good job, Bert” and walks away.
– A manager shakes her head slowly at Bert as she walks past, hissing “Must do better, Bert”.

These snippets of employee feedback aren’t enough and don’t provide Bert with the information he needs because they’re not specific enough and he’s not being given the opportunity to reply. Be conscious of the narrative of your feedback and avoid speaking in absolutes. If you don’t do this, you leave little room for important dialogue between yourself and the person you are providing information to.

A. G. Lafley, ex-CEO of Procter & Gamble was a great believer in dialogue and would often go on field trips to take people out of the office and listen to his colleagues’ opinions. He intentionally took this time away from the daily grind to give them open space to speak their mind. This crucial time spent with them led to a new “collaborative and innovative” corporate culture within P&G.

Remember that while your perspective is valid, so too is your colleague’s and they may have observed or understood things differently than you. As they’re the ones qualified to do their own job, they may have a better grasp on the situation than you do — give them the benefit of the doubt.

Making clear your expectations of improvements that need to be made, or reasons for praising an employee’s work are imperative – bad job comments will only leave Bert puzzled.

2. You Aren’t Being Constructive

“Your work’s not up to standard, is it, Louise?”

When providing feedback, it’s important to be aware of the manner in which we’re communicating. We need to pay attention to the language we’re using and ask open-ended questions to dive deeper into the issues at hand. In addition to being direct and specific, effective feedback is action-oriented — meaning that the individual receiving the feedback should feel receptive, even empowered by our feedback, not discouraged and criticized.

Being issue-focused will greatly help. A generalized comment like the one given to Louise isn’t going to incite the necessary change of behavior, or prompt her to step it up.  Focus on a task that has been carried out particularly well or badly. If the feedback is negative, focus on how you’d like to see the work improved, encouraging the employee or colleague to see that it will be entirely possible for them to do better next time. A request for change is a must, otherwise you’re simply giving them generalized negativity.

So instead of that comment above, how about something like:

“Thanks for getting those reports in on time, Louise. There’s just one thing – you’ll need to start double-checking your math. A few of the figures were off, probably because of an incorrect formula in the spreadsheet. They’ll need to be right next time or our forecasts could end up badly out.”

Your feedback should also be based on observations you have made or had reported to you, i.e. determine fact over potential fiction: not interpretations of what you think might have happened, as you may end up making entirely incorrect assumptions that will only serve to aggravate the situation.

3. “That’s nothing. Let me tell you about the day I’ve had…”

I’m sure you’ve had the “that’s nothing” conversation with someone you know, and you’ll know how frustrating it is. Well, it’s doubly-frustrating to hear it from the person who’s supposed to be providing you with feedback.

There is merit in relating to the individual, but not to out do them by comparison. Keep focused and understand them, as opposed to more clearly define your position of authority.

4. You Play the Victim

“They’ve told me to tell you that they’re not happy with your work. It doesn’t annoy me that you’re late every week with those deliveries. I feel awful about having to mention it.”

While we all have our challenges, when providing feedback, positive or negative, never play the victim. Own your feedback.

We’ve all heard comments from managers and colleagues blaming someone else for what they have to do. The only solution is to own the problem and prove that you’re your own person. If you really don’t agree with a decision that’s been made, then communicate that to the person who made it, not to the employee you have to relay it to.

Personal insecurities such as tiredness, disappointment, loneliness and powerlessness are factors that can lead to a boss reeling out their own problems, rather than presenting a strong, decisive front. So, where possible try to leave feelings out of your attempts to provide feedback.


Don’t go into a feedback situation lightly: it’s not an easy situation to be in and even relaying positive feedback can have its pitfalls. Above all, take one extra moment to plan carefully what it is you need to tell the person and how you’re going to say it before you go anywhere near them. The effect can be significant and lasting and most importantly, garner you the impact you’re after in the first place.

How often do you provide feedback for your employees? What type of feedback do you find they respond the best to? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!

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