- The object of feedback is to improve performance.
- The ability to give and receive feedback is essential for any leader.
- There are ineffective methods of providing feedback that really do not work.
Effective leadership hinges on adeptly delivering and receiving feedback to foster engagement, enhance performance, and cultivate a thriving organizational culture.
No one would ever question that being an effective leader requires effective communication. A key component of effective communication is the ability to provide effective feedback. The purpose of feedback is to improve performance, not only of an individual, but of a team, which can then affect the performance of an entire organization.
Employees who regularly receive what they perceive as effective feedback are significantly more engaged than those who are left to guess about their performance. Like most powerful tools, however, feedback also has the potential to reduce engagement of an individual or team and lead to worse organizational performance. In addition, in a tight labor market, an individual who does not feel valued or feels unfairly criticized likely can move themselves out of the organization—certainly not the desired effect of feedback.
At all levels, individuals value the ability to improve performance and relationships with those they work with, including those they report to. Because of this, a leader’s ability to both give and receive feedback is a critical requirement for the success of an organization.
Like most leadership skills, the ability to give and receive feedback is not always intuitive. Various methods can improve both, leading to the desired outcome of improved performance and healthy relationships. The ability to give effective feedback is further hindered by the fact that almost half of all managers find giving feedback stressful and 1 in 5 avoid giving feedback altogether.1 Even accepted paradigms such as annual or semiannual reviews may lead to ineffective feedback due to managers avoiding real-time feedback, which may result in making the scheduled feedback sessions less meaningful for the recipient and more difficult for the individual giving the feedback.
Is positive feedback always better?
In a piece published in The New York Times in 2013, Alina Tugend dispelled the myth that positive feedback is good and negative feedback is bad.2 It is that notion that causes us to lose sight of the real purpose of all feedback—to help people do better. And the type of feedback people may need to help them do better depends on the situation.
Those at the beginning of a journey may lack confidence and require encouragement as part of the feedback process. Those further down the road toward expertise are likely more confident in their abilities and crave constructive criticism to drive performance. Although an intern may benefit from hearing about their square knots, a fourth-year resident likely wants the feedback needed to skillfully execute a procedure independently.
That is not to say that all feedback to a neophyte must be positive; in fact, withholding any negative feedback can hinder development. When we discuss techniques for providing feedback, it will be important to keep in mind that people have a natural tendency to hear what they want to hear, so negative feedback, if not deliberately and effectively delivered, may be lost on the recipient.
How to deliver feedback
In many corporate situations, the cadence of formal feedback is a written evaluation by a manager. This evaluation is reviewed by the recipient; it may be accepted as is, or further discussion is generated, which is a valuable part of the process. For that reason, the process of written evaluations must be a thoughtful one.
Written evaluations, although sometimes thought of as impersonal, have advantages. Both parties are free of time constraints. The manager can be thoughtful and deliberate, using specific examples that support both positive and negative feedback, and the recipient has time to absorb and process the feedback in a safe environment. Both can be spared the consequences of emotional responses.
Because written feedback carries the stigma of being impersonal, the person delivering the feedback needs to be deliberate, making sure to include messages of encouragement and gratitude to make written feedback more effective. In certain circumstances, however, spoken feedback may be more effective or even necessary. For example, a written evaluation may be ineffective if it leads to a complex back and forth, if the recipient is more likely to take negative feedback personally and become hurt, or if there is a fear that the feedback will put an effective relationship at risk.3
In addition to the broad categories of written or verbal feedback, what follows are other tactics considered best practices for giving feedback:4
How to receive feedback
It may be self-serving to say, but if you are reading this, chances are you are well on your way or already are an effective leader. Even so, everyone can improve from constructive criticism, and the ability to accept negative criticism will not only help you improve as a leader, but also drive engagement from your team as they discover you are genuinely self-aware and interested in their opinions.
Some of the fundamentals of receiving feedback are as follows:5
These lessons address how to receive feedback from those who report to you or are even employed by you, but they are relevant to feedback in all situations. Understanding how to receive feedback is one of the most effective ways to become skilled at providing feedback and leveraging its positive impact on your team’s performance.
The feedback sandwich
Many of us were trained that the “feedback sandwich”—delivering negative feedback sandwiched between 2 pieces of positive feedback—is an effective way of providing feedback. This is flawed in many ways. At the most basic level, it is often easily identified as being disingenuous. The person receiving the feedback will not only become sensitized to the fact that compliments almost always precede criticism, but also may feel disrespected by the utilization of this tactic. The consequence of using this tactic extends beyond insulting those who are to receive the feedback because, chances are, the message and any positive engagement or improvement seen with effective feedback will be lost as well. In addition, a new manager may become discouraged by the lack of action and join the ranks of those who shy away from or avoid giving feedback altogether.6
Feedback, when given and received in a constructive and empathetic manner, will lead to a more effective and engaged workforce. And the return on investment for focusing on this tactic as a leadership skill will be improved performance throughout the entire organization.
1. Laundry L. How to give feedback effectively. Harvard Business School Online Business Insights Blog. May 2, 2019. Accessed July 1, 2023. https://online.hbs.edu/blog/post/how-to-give-feedback-effectively
2. Tugend A. You’ve been doing a fantastic job. just one thing.New York Times. March 6, 2013. Accessed July 1, 2023. https://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/06/your-money/how-to-give-effective-feedback-both-positive-and-negative.html
3. Don’t know how to best deliver feedback? here are 6 tips. Advisory Board Daily Briefing. December 16, 2022. Updated June 27, 2023. Accessed July 1, 2023. https://www.advisory.com/daily-briefing/2022/12/16/feedback
4. Collins MJ. The art of giving feedback: the good, the bad and the ugly. LinkedIn. July 7, 2022. Accessed July 1, 2023. https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/art-giving-feedback-good-bad-ugly-michael-j-collins
5. How leaders can handle (and respond) to negative feedback. HRDQ. Updated February 18, 2023. Accessed July 1, 2023. https://hrdqstore.com/blogs/hrdq-blog/handle-respond-negative-feedback
6. Green A. Beware of bosses handing out “crap sandwiches.” Slate. August 22, 2018. Accessed July 1, 2023. https://slate.com/human-interest/2018/08/crap-sandwich-a-sneaky-ill-conceived-managerial-technique-for-giving-negative-feedback.html