Why leaders find giving feedback difficult and what to do about it

By Heather Campbell

CommsMasters Insights

The prospect of ‘giving feedback’ can make even the most confident of leaders stumble over their words or struggle to articulate what needs to be said. A recent Gallup poll found that 69% of senior managers have difficulty communicating, and 37% find it hard to give negative feedback. [1] In our experience, issues with feedback don’t just arise where a leader needs to communicate what isn’t going well – it can also be hard to tell someone they are doing a good job. In the latest CommsMasters Insights, we explain why leaders find giving feedback so difficult, and share some tips to break down some of the barriers associated with it so leaders can re-frame feedback in a new way.

Why feedback is important

Effective leaders are emotionally intelligent people who understand the impact they have on others. They know that feedback, in all its forms, is a key way to influence others and improve performance. Feedback is one of the most powerful and yet most underused tools a leader has at their disposal. It also comes with practically no cost!

75% of employees believe feedback is important, and 65% say they would like more feedback that they’re getting at the moment. [2] Without feedback, people simply don’t know how they are performing, and more specifically, how to improve. In addition to boosting accountability and performance, feedback is incredibly energising and motivating. It underpins employee satisfaction and engagement, keeping people on the right track and focussed on the right goals.

In one sense, as leaders, we give feedback all the time – often without realising it. We give unconsciously through our behaviours and also through what we choose not to say or do. At the most basic level, any acknowledgement of another person can be construed as feedback. When a leader pays little attention to an individual, or to teams or areas of work – this is feedback. We have seen examples in organisations where this kind of ‘feedback famine’ culture perpetuates, and where a lack of feedback damages the organisation to its core.  

But that really isn’t helpful feedback. What can you do to make sure that your feedback is fine-tuned and effective? To get this right, it helps to understand why we don’t give feedback in the first place.

Why are leaders so worried about feedback?

Given the tangible benefits of feedback, why is it that leaders are so worried about it? The answer is simple. When we need to give feedback, we’re often concerned about the other person and how they will respond to it:

  • Will they get defensive?
  • Will they be angry?
  • Will they be embarrassed?
  • Will they get emotional?

Leaders also worry about how to respond to pushback from others – or even for the totally unexpected response.We can’t control what’s going to happen. As a result, even for experienced leaders, feedback can be a minefield and we either completely avoid giving feedback or when we do, we skirt around the important message.

Breaking feedback down

To help move things forward, let’s move away from the idea that ‘feedback’ is a single entity. Instead, there are different types of feedback, each of which is relevant to different situations. At CommsMasters, we talk about the ‘feedback family’ as a way to bring clarity to different types of feedback, and the situations each type is best used for. Here’s how we recommend breaking down these effectively.

1. Basic recognition and acknowledgement

This is the simplest kind of feedback. Examples include: ‘You did a great job’, ‘Well done’, or ‘I enjoyed your presentation.’ This is a great way to build a ‘feel good factor’ for individuals and teams, and is an important part of the feedback family.

However, although it is nice for someone to receive this kind of feedback, it is of little practical benefit because it doesn’t tell them how they did a good job. What should they do again tomorrow to get a similarly positive response?

As there is no real opportunity for in-depth exploration with this type of feedback, we recommend that it is used to deliver positive messages only.

2. Giving feedback

As the title suggests, giving feedback is a one-way street. You’re sharing your views about what someone has done well, or not so well, and why their action is or is not effective. It’s sharing the why that moves feedback beyond simply giving recognition.

When we explain why we like something, or why we want it to change, it gives the recipient more context and helps them to understand our perspective more fully. It also makes it easier for them to repeat or adjust their actions appropriately.

The drawback is that this type of feedback inherently leaves little space for a response; as such use it only when you want to share a straightforward message. This should be one when the recipient of that message will not to wish to reply in-depth or have any kind of emotional reaction.

As with basic recognition and acknowledgement, this is usually when you are sharing a positive message. Telling someone you liked their business case and what you liked about it, or letting someone know that you feel they handled a tricky situation well, would be two examples.

If it’s a message about something that you want someone to change, this really should be a minor alteration. Giving you more notice before a meeting, or using a different layout for a report would be two relevant examples. In short, if you want someone to change what they’re doing, you should give feedback only when you are asking for a bland change. Anything more, and people are likely to want to have their say in response.

3. The feedback conversation 

The third tier in the feedback family is the feedback conversation. This moves beyond giving to engaging. The feedback becomes a meaningful conversation, where both participants contribute and share different perspectives. A feedback conversation allows you to say what you need to say and – crucially – to learn about the other person’s perspective.

Because a feedback conversation gives plenty of time for a response from others involved, this is the type of feedback to use with both positive and less positive messages. Use it when there is a need to explore in more detail and build mutual understanding.

There are three keys to engaging in an effective feedback conversation:

  • Be clear and honest about what you have to say
  • Listen to understand what the other person has to say – avoid judging it or defending your own viewpoint
  • Be willing to change your perpsective when you hear what the other person has to say – your feedback may not be ‘right’ once you have more context


Many leaders put feedback into a box, keeping it hidden away and using it on only rare occasions – the annual performance review, for example. Bringing feedback ‘out of the box’ requires a mindset shift, where leaders are comfortable to engage in a range of different types of feedback and seeing this as simply part of their everyday interactions with the people they lead.

[1] Kathy Greer, Why Managers Dread Giving Performance Feedback, Kathy Greer blog, 17th January 2018. Available at: https://kgreer.com/blog/2018/01/why-is-giving-performance-feedback-so-hard/

[2] Rae Steinbach, Employees Want Feedback – But No One Is Giving It, Recruiter, 23rd August 2018. Available at: https://www.recruiter.com/i/employees-want-feedback-but-no-one-is-giving-it/

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