Now, how may I help you?

How do we learn? How do we grow and become better? How do we learn that we did something wrong? By getting good and helpful feedback. When you are in leadership position you are expected to provide that feedback to your team. How do you do it? How do you give the right feedback in the right way? It all depends on what outcome you desire. There are many ways how to provide feedback but you can divide them into two categories based on what you want to achieve: feedback to motivate further development and feedback to correct undesirable behavior.

Feedback is not food

Most leaders like to practice so called sandwich feedback. In fact, it is the way how most of the leadership training courses would teach you to provide feedback. You start with something positive to build rapport and for a person to start listening, then you say what needs to improve and then finish again on positive side so the person feels good. You need to be very careful with this type of feedback. It may work in the developmental settings when you want also to motivate but it will not work when there is a real issue to be corrected. The danger of sandwich feedback is that by obscuring the corrective message between two positive ones you may hide it too much and the recipient will just not get it.

“Hi John, what a beautiful watch you wear today and isn’t the weather just great? Look I just saw your report and I think you could use a bit more organization and summarize the facts a bit better. But I really appreciate the effort you put into it and the formatting and colors you used are great. Just continue the great job.”

… ehm, is this the way to provide useful feedback? If you were John, would you know what to improve? In fact, would you feel you need to improve anything at all?

Developmental feedback

There are situations when you want to provide feedback to someone to develop his skills. His attitude is good, he is generally motivated to do the job but lacks on necessary skills. The intention is not to stop some undesirable behavior but to build new skills. For that it is important not only to provide insights into what the person needs to improve but also to provide encouragement so he or she wants to improve and leaves the conversation energized and ready to implement your feedback.

The way to achieve it is to end up on positive note that helps the person to feel good about the progress and about himself. You need to build the self-esteem of the person while not hiding the areas he or she needs to improve. This is the way evaluations at Toastmasters work (

“Hi John, thank you for coming. I was just going through your report and want to give you my thoughts on it. I can see you put lots of effort into it and I appreciate it. The way you are able to pull all the data together is just phenomenal. Now, how can I help you to make it even better next time? To get the most of the reports I would suggest representing the data in a form of a graph next time so the trends are more visible. I would also like to see executive summary at the beginning so I don’t need to go through the whole report unless there is something that catches my eye. I can see huge improvement from last time so focus on the graphs and the summary and you will get your reports to the next level.”

You may skip the last sentence, as it essentially makes it a sandwich, and instead offer help in a form of “If you are still unsure on how to make it better feel free to come to me with questions.” That way you make it half-sandwich which is more direct and in healthy environment is all what is needed.

Corrective feedback

Sometimes you don’t need to develop a skill or provide feedback on how to have reasonably good work even better but you want to give corrective feedback on behavior that is simply unacceptable and needs to be stopped or changed immediately. This is no time for sugar coating it or beating around the bush. It is also the most difficult type of feedback you may need to provide. So how do you approach it? By being very direct to drive the message home. You need to be very clear to ensure that there is no misunderstanding or misinterpretation of what you are trying to say.

“Hi John, I just saw your report and it just sucks. I told you several times and you never listen. It is just bad and you need to re-do it right now. Put some graphs there, summarize better and don’t come to me unless it is perfect. Don’t screw it up as always and for once just get it right.”

… ehm, very direct, very confrontational and most likely very inefficient as John is probably still not sure what he needs to change, plus he will most likely become defensive and not able to improve anyway. What he will most likely get from this ranting of yours is “My boss has a really bad day. There is nothing wrong with my report, he just doesn’t know what he wants.”

How to say it

To make the feedback direct and at the same time useful and “receivable” is to follow couple of basic rules

  • Know your team – it all starts days or months before you provide the feedback. If the person you want to give corrective feedback knows you, if he or she got some positive acknowledgement in the past and if you talk to them regularly and not only when you are unhappy there are more likely to receive your feedback
  • Make it safe – you need to ensure that the person is able to listen to what you are saying. You need to create environment when the person understands that you are not attacking but you want to help.
  • Use contrasting when needed – a nice method to help creating safety is to explicitly say what “you are not doing”; for example “The last thing I want is for you to feel angry about this. My goal is to give you helpful suggestions so you can grow at this company.”
  • Describe what you see but don’t interpret – never generalize and never interpret. You are not telepath so always talk only about what you observe. To achieve this use “I” instead of “You”. “You” often feels judgmental or patronizing and can put the other person in defensive position. It is better to describe everything in first person.
  • Don’t exaggerate – words like “always” or “never” should be never used as they generalize, will make the person defensive and will detract from the point you are trying to make
  • Describe impact on the person or on the team – sometimes it may help to reinforce the message to show the big picture and get the person to understand the natural consequences of his behavior. You are not threatening, you just want the person to understand how his behavior impacts his future, the team, the company.
  • Focus on future – don’t talk too much about past and don’t demand explanations of “why” as it will just lead to pointing fingers and finding excuses.
  • Don’t repeat the same point several times – that feels like nagging and at the end may dilute the message; say it once and as clearly as possible
  • Listen and get commitment – try to understand the position of the other person to make sure you are fair and at the same time you want to get commitment from the person that he or she will improve. It is also important to clarify anything that may be unclear and open to interpretations.
  • Create ownership – follow up is really important but you shouldn’t own it. If you want to create ownership by the person he or she needs to own also the follow up session.

“Hi John, thank you for coming. I wanted to talk about the report you gave me yesterday. There are couple of areas that I feel needs to be improved next time. I see you were able to gather an impressive amount of data and when I was going through it I had really hard time getting oriented in all the numbers. I feel some graphs would help and I’m also not sure whether I understand the implication of the data. What do you think about these observations?… [here you give John a chance to comment so it is more of a conversation and you are building ownership of John to include the graphs next time, maybe clarifying what type of graphs and how many] …This sounds good. So to summarize it, next time you will include couple of graphs to illustrate the most important trends and you will also include a short executive summary at the beginning. I want to help you to get it perfect, so can you get on my calendar one day before the next report is due so we can review the draft together?”

When to say it

Say it now! If you want your feedback to have the right impact you need to say it as close to the event you are commenting on as possible. In most cases it should be immediately after you observe the behavior you feel needs to be addressed. The only exceptions are when the person receiving the feedback or yourself are in emotional turmoil. If you are emotional you won’t be able to give a good feedback and you are likely to cause more damage than good. And the same applies if the recipient is emotional. Then you may want to postpone it to ensure that when you are giving the feedback it is being received.

Twitter type summary: “When giving feedback always keep the desired outcome in mind. Is it about corrective action or building self-esteem?”

What is your favorite way of providing feedback? What did work for you and what didn’t?

Photo: Shutterstock, Inc.

Categories: Communication, Leadership, Performance

Tags: , , , ,

7 replies


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