How to give feedback that gets results

By Heather Campbell

What’s the most painful feedback you’ve ever received? Was it in personal or business life? As a child or as an adult?

If you’re like most of the leaders I work with, you’ll recall several occasions when feedback hurt more than it helped.

Despite exhortations to welcome feedback ‘as a gift’, feedback rarely feels like the kind of gift you want to find with your name on it!


Author Marcus Buckingham describes the belief that feedback is essential for employees to thrive as ‘a fallacy’, suggesting that as much as 50% of it actually triggers a fear response. At the same time, it’s clear from my own research that people want regular feedback from their leaders. In fact, not getting feedback from your boss can also trigger fear. It can leave you feeling quite isolated and even undermine your confidence. Are you on the right track? Is your manager satisfied with the work you are doing? Can you assume you must be getting it right because you haven’t been told you’re getting it wrong?


So, what should leaders do? Is feedback really a must-have for success? Or can you wipe it off your leadership to-do list with a sigh of relief.

Sorry folks – that last one’s a trick question. You don’t get out of giving feedback that easily 🙂

Feedback is essential to ensure that the people you lead know whether or not they are meeting your expectations. And your expectations matter! After all, you’ll most likely be a key player in deciding the pay rises, bonuses and opportunities that come their way.

What you can let go of, however, is the idea that you need to ‘give’ feedback because, in fact, you very rarely need – or should – be doing this. Here’s why!

‘Giving’ feedback implies a one-way message where one person gives and the other receives – job done. But feedback rarely ends there. Most of us want a right to reply when we receive feedback. After all, we have our side of the story and our perspective to share.

For this reason, I always recommend to my clients that they think of feedback at three levels.


Level 1 – Recognition

Recognition is simply acknowledging that someone has done something – ‘Great presentation’, ‘Thank you for standing in at the last minute’, ‘The report’s spot on’.

The eagle-eyed will notice an important feature of these. They all relate to something that the person has done well. Recognition must always be about something positive!

Give recognition liberally. After all, all around you are individuals who are taking actions that are making your life easier and delivering results for your organisation. Recognition is a quick and easy way to let them know you’ve noticed and value their contribution. It’ll give the other person a warm, fuzzy glow and is motivating.

At the same time, recognition could be considered as ‘feedback lite’ because it doesn’t let the other person know exactly what you liked or valued, or what exactly they got right.

Level 2 – Giving feedback

The next level of feedback will provide this much-needed information. You see, giving feedback effectively means making it clear not only that you liked something, but also what you liked about it and why.

‘I thought your presentation was great because you made the complex data so simple that we were all able to join in the discussion afterwards.’

And, unlike recognition, which should always be positive, you can give feedback about things that you’d like someone to change.

However, there are two big caveats.

You should only give feedback about topics that are unlikely to have any emotional impact for the other person and where the other person is unlikely to want to have share their side of the story.

In other words, when you ‘give’ feedback it should be about something that is so banal it won’t cause any ripples. A few years back, for example, I wanted my new P.A. to allow more time for me to eat my lunch between meetings – I do like my food ;-). I ‘gave’ feedback that indicated I’d like this change made.

Level 3 – A conversation

Most feedback isn’t actually feedback at all – it’s really a conversation. It’s a conversation where you share your perspective on something (I guess you could call this sharing your feedback). Then, having opened up the topic, you and the other person engage in an open, honest discussion where you both explore and seek to build understanding of each other’s perspective.

I think most feedback topics falls into this category – it’s relatively rare that the topic is so banal that the other person isn’t going to want to discuss it in some way. And they’re almost certainly going to want further exploration if the topic relates to their behaviour or performance. Think back to the feedback that hurt you – I’ll bet it was about your behaviour or performance, that it caused you to feel some level of emotion, and that you were left without any right to reply.

You were ‘given’ feedback when what was really needed was a conversation.

For ‘feedback as a conversation’ to be effective, you need to let go of the idea that you’re right and the other person is wrong. You must introduce the topic with a genuine desire to explore, willingness to change your mind and openness to finding a mutually agreed way forward.

When you view feedback as an opportunity for exploring, building understanding and learning on the part of both parties involved – in other words, a conversation – you will find that feedback becomes a fruitful experience for everyone involved.


And thus, with feedback above all things, be sure you are observing yourself and others with interest and learning, not with criticism and judgement.

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