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How To: Deliver Critical Feedback Effectively

How To: Deliver Critical Feedback Effectively

Whether you’re an employee who isn’t getting enough input from your boss, or a leader who is struggling with how to deliver a tough message, feedback is a universal and unavoidable challenge. As a leader, it is critically important to be able to deliver feedback well. One of the reasons critical feedback is so dreaded is that many managers think they only need to give it to employees who are struggling. In fact, feedback is equally, if not more important, as a tool to help your top performers improve and take on more responsibility. Quality constructive criticism can help a great employee become a star, and enables your star performer to have an even bigger impact on your team.

Although it may be uncomfortable in the moment, your employees and teammates will certainly appreciate your honesty in the long run. Keep these things in mind to deliver feedback most effectively.

1) Put things in Context

I like to use a 2-part formula for giving constructive feedback and performance assessments: The state of things + What does that mean.

Consider the differences between these two statements:

a) “You have been struggling with how to approach projects that are ambiguous.”

b) “You have been struggling with how to approach projects that are more ambiguous, but overall your progress is in line with what we expected based on your seniority.”

See how powerful that second phrase is? The employee would likely walk away with a totally different view on how they were doing. Whether it’s good or bad (the “what does it mean” might be that someone is performing below expectations), it is vital to give employees a sense of where their behavior falls against your expectations for them. Don’t assume they know where you think they stand or that they will be able to extrapolate it from your observation — be explicit.

2) Beware of the "Compliment Sandwich"

I often hear people say that that the compliment sandwich is the most effective way to give feedback. This makes me cringe. It’s not! Don’t just take my word for it, research supports that it’s not an effective way to convey areas for improvement. When you put constructive criticism between two positives, the person you’re talking to mainly only hears the positives. They definitely won’t walk away with a clear sense of how that piece of feedback fits in with their overall performance. They will most likely brush it off altogether. Alternatively, it often has the effect of devaluing the positives. If you want to deliver positive feedback, do it separately. It should not be used as a warm-up for areas for improvement.

3) Partner to Create Next Steps

There are few things as un-motivating as getting a bunch of critical feedback and feeling like you have no idea how to approach making the necessary changes. An excellent leader will not only deliver the feedback, but they will end the conversation by outlining some concrete steps to improve. It is also most effective if you give examples of what could have gone better. An effective way to combine the two is to discuss how a past example situation could have been improved, and to strategize together about how to handle a similar situation in the future. Motivated people want to improve- help them shift into action as soon as possible by being direct and specific about what they can do differently.

I feel so passionately about the importance of delivering quality, actionable feedback that I could easily develop a list of 20 things to keep in mind. However, if you follow these three guidelines, you are much more likely to have a productive conversation with your employee and lay the foundation for personal growth and improvement.


Kate O'Sullivan is an experienced leader and coach who has worked with a diverse group of clients to help them achieve their professional goals with KO Coaching. Kate coaches professionals who want to make career transitions to a new industry or role. Kate also coaches emerging leaders to help them develop the skills and confidence to move effectively into leadership roles.

Have more questions? Follow up with the expert herself.