By Ellie Hearne

As my friend Doug Upchurch likes to say, “Feedback is a gift, but it shouldn’t feel like an ugly Christmas sweater.”

So what better time than the holidays to look at how feedback can be used to help a team, an individual, or company excel - without causing hurt feelings or low morale?

Thoughtful Feedback vs Afterthought Feedback

Feedback is perhaps the best way to improve ourselves and others, but it’s almost universally handled poorly.

Praise and recognition are either given too rarely or so liberally that they lose all meaning.

Similarly, constructive feedback is either raised too late to be useful or delivered in a such a manner that it’s ignored, met by defensiveness, or lowers morale.

Done well, feedback reinforces innovation and good behavior and corrects and improves negative actions. Here are some guiding principles to make it work for your and your team:

1. Don’t Wait

Positive or otherwise, feedback should be given while it’s top of mind. Quarterly or annual reviews are helpful, but life happens in between.

Don’t wait to tell someone they’re doing something great. And give them a fighting chance to correct their behavior if they’re not.

(And when it comes to constructive feedback, passive-aggressive bosses are often guilty of letting things fester.)

2. Give Meaningful Praise

Positive feedback should be detailed and specific. “You did a great job” isn’t bad to hear, but it’s not detailed enough to be helpful and it’s too generic to seem genuine.

Instead, remind the person of what they did and why it landed so well. For example:

“The way you talked about our company to the client in this morning’s meeting made me proud to have hired you. The analogy you used was clear and memorable – great shorthand for what we do. Nicely done.”

By doing this, you’re not only making the person feel good but increasing the chances they’ll repeat their strong performance in future.

If you’re a leader, ask yourself what sort of feedback culture you want to instill. Sending a company-wide email to praise a job well done might work beautifully early on – but as your team grows that approach can easily become annoying.

Whether bestowed on individuals or whole teams, praise should always be genuine and meaningful.

3. Tailor Your Approach

With more-constructive feedback, people have different preferences:

  • Try to discern whether the person you’re talking to needs only some acknowledgement or perhaps a more collaborative approach.

  • Do they prefer to hear what they’re doing well, before you offer criticism? Or would they rather you just got to the point already?

Remember, what you value when receiving feedback isn’t necessarily the same as what the person you’re talking to values.

Try to figure out the type of person you’re dealing with. The easiest way to do this is to simply ask them their preference – ideally long before you’re having a feedback conversation. (And when it comes to discerning a person’s preferences, there’s a shortcut.)


4. Consider Your Tone and Mindset

Business is always personal – and never more so than when you’re giving or receiving criticism.

In other words, don’t let your demeanor get in the way of having a fair and positive interaction with someone else.

The type of conversation you’ll have depends on the seriousness of the behavior you’re looking to correct. If a close peer says something mildly inappropriate, the best response might be to address it then and there, perhaps with a simple, “Hey – that was a really uncool thing to say.”

But if you’re dealing with a direct report or something more serious than a casual remark, you’ll likely have to lean more on process. Gather at least two examples of the behavior in question and set up a meeting. (Of course, if the person has done something egregiously wrong, don’t wait for a second occurrence.)

5. Make it a Two-Way Conversation

As leaders, we’re often as anxious about delivering tough feedback as employees are about receiving it. As a result, it’s easy to rush through a “script” just to get the conversation over with. But that sort of feedback rarely changes behavior. For example:

Manager: You were talking a little too much in today’s meeting. Next time I’d like you to let more people take the floor… Does that sound OK?

Employee: …Yeah.

Manager: OK, great.

This won’t get either of you far.

Instead, after outlining the challenging behavior, invite the person to share their side of things. “Why do you think this is happening?” is a good question to get the other person contributing.

You encourage them to own their behavior, give them ample opportunity to speak up, and rather than being seen as a dictatorial leader, you’re collaborative and fair. For example:

Manager: “I want to talk with you about something I think you can improve. In yesterday’s meeting you talked over Jane repeatedly and were dismissive of her points. This morning you behaved similarly on a client call. My intention in raising this is to help the whole team excel. Why do you think this has been happening?”

Here, the manager sets the tone and gives the person the chance to share their point of view. As a manager, you don’t have to validate the person’s comments, but you should always make the time to listen.

If the person you’re talking to gets defensive, remind them that they’re not “in trouble” – and turn the conversation back to your original goal.

Leverage active listening: listen well, speak little, and occasionally paraphrase what you’ve heard to ensure you and the individual are on the same page. 

6. Encourage Ownership of the Solution

At this point, many managers just want things over with quickly so they suggest their own solutions. But the best managers do not. They know that the employee is significantly more likely to change their behavior if they offer a solution themselves.

For example:

  • “If you were in my shoes, what would you do?”

  • “How do you think you can prevent this kind of thing from happening in future?”

You can also feel free to offer your own ideas and solutions – just give the person a chance to share theirs first.

7. Have Them Share Next Steps

Close with: “Please send me a brief summary of what we covered and your next steps. And let’s plan on a quick check-in next week.” 

On hearing this, anyone who hasn’t fully engaged with the process thus far will quickly start to. They’ll also feel greater ownership of what’s next.

And while you will hopefully never need one, you will gain a “paper trail” of what unfolded. And you’ll have another chance to correct any lingering misunderstandings.

Of course, no one size fits every situation. Try out this framework, make it your own, and tell us how it goes.

For more techniques like this one, check out our Leadership Savvy workshop.

We are Pencil or Ink. We help individuals, teams, and companies excel through strong communication. Learn more here.

Ellie Hearne is a leadership-communications expert and founder of Pencil or Ink. She has worked with Apple, Google, Kate Spade, Marriott, Morgan Stanley, Oracle, Pfizer, Piaget, Spotify, Starbucks, and Twitter, among others, and has coached numerous individuals and teams. Ellie can be reached herehere, and here.