The 15 golden rules of constructive feedback (2023)

Thinking back on my career, I am grateful for a few key mentors who invested in my development. Some highlighted early strengths; others uncovered blind spots I didn’t see; others helped me develop critical skills.

When it comes to developing people, I like to say feedback is an obligation, not an option. Yet far too many managers act as though feedback is optional. A 2013 survey of U.S. managers found “only 2% of managers provide ongoing feedback to their employees.” Maybe they are too nice. Maybe they don’t like confrontation. Or maybe they simply can’t find the time.

Unfortunately, few of us (if any) learn skills on our own. We need coaching, direction and opportunities to try, fail and try again. We also need positive reinforcement to keep us focused and motivated. And sometimes, we need someone to tell us where we are going wrong.

We need constructive feedback. And this begs the question: what is the best way to provide it? Here are 15 critical strategies to guide you in offering constructive feedback.

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  1. Focus on solutions

Constructive feedback gives people something they can work with. In sports, a good coach wouldn’t simply say “your shot is wrong”. Rather, they would likely point to something the other person could do to become more effective. If you don’t have any suggestions for improvement, zip your mouth.

  1. Ask versus tell

Just because you know something doesn’t mean you have to share it right away. Ask the other person for their input first. “How do you think this could have gone better?” This will help them develop confidence in their own skills and insights. As an added bonus, appealing to their expertise helps them feel less threatened.

Confrontation is rarely productive

  1. Be specific

Be specific when sharing feedback. Blanket comments are more destructive than constructive. “You are always late” is likely to trigger defensiveness. Alternatively, specific feedback gives the receiver clarity around the impact of their actions. Example: “I believe you gave the client room to question your commitment when we showed up late for meeting x and y. What do you think?”

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  1. Time it right

The heat of the moment is rarely (if ever) a good time to deliver feedback. If the other person is emotional, vulnerable or argumentative, your feedback will likely not be heard. Confrontation is rarely productive. At the same time, you don’t want to wait too long after an event. Seek an opportunity when the other person appears to be open to feedback and you can have a private conversation.

  1. Don’t rush it

Feedback should not be shared in passing. This doesn’t give the other person time to absorb and seek more information. Sure, it may be efficient to squeeze feedback into the last few minutes of a call. But feedback is all about developing other people. And this can’t be constrained in a small time-box.

  1. Consider their pride

Offer suggestions in a non-judgmental way. And don’t fight them too much if they come back with denial and defensiveness. They might need some time to absorb and reflect on your feedback. In the meantime, focus on building trust and selectively present feedback in a professional way.

  1. Establish trust

In general, you need a trusting relationship before you can give effective feedback. Otherwise, feedback is likely to leave the person feeling attacked. Build trust by recognizing and showing interest in their positive contributions. It also helps to begin feedback conversations with: “How did you think that went? Is there anything we could have done better?” If the person doesn’t seem open to a discussion, consider waiting for another time.

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  1. Leave them better

The best leaders strive to make other people feel better with every interaction. Sometimes, this means being supportive, encouraging and respectful. Other times, it means helping other people refine their skills or approach. In both cases, be sure to communicate in a respectful way.

  1. Wait for a pattern

Everyone deserves an “oops” once in a while. Wait until you see a pattern (i.e., two or three instances) before sharing constructive feedback. At the same time, be sure to address issues before they snowball into untenable problems.

  1. Pick your battle

At the same time, we don’t want to nitpick on every little thing. Allow for different ways of approaching tasks, when subjective latitude is appropriate. Is their approach worth correcting? Are you nit-picking or is there a valid rationale for developing this skill? Consider reflecting on this before speaking up.

  1. Focus on what they can control

Don’t focus on outcomes. Focus on the actions they take, as this is the only thing they can control. And as we all know, the more time we spend doing the right things, the more likely we are to achieve a successful outcome.

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  1. Catch them doing it right

The next time you catch them doing it right, celebrate it. Recognize the desired behavior and you will likely see more of this behavior going forward. This also helps to boost your ratio of positive to constructive feedback in line with other high-performance teams.

  1. Check yourself

Check yourself before giving feedback. Use the HALT acronym to remind yourself to avoid giving feedback when you are hungry, angry, lonely or tired. Sure, we all know someone who has the adult equivalent of a temper tantrum when things don’t go their way, but we also know this isn’t very effective.

  1. Commit to practising

The only way we get better at sharing feedback is by actually practising. Like any skill, we are not going to get better by delaying action. Your feedback conversations won’t always run smoothly, but you will get better over time.

15.Do unto others

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As the golden rule says, treat others as you would like to be treated yourself. Are you receptive to feedback? Do you demonstrate a willingness to learn and develop? If your team feels you are closed off, they will be as well. Actively seek feedback and talk about the skills you are working on. Nothing invites people to step outside of their comfort zone more than shared vulnerability.

These are my recommendations for sharing constructive feedback. Now, I’d love your feedback. What would you add to this list? Please share in the comments below or join our conversation on Twitter,LinkedIn or Facebook.


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