Leadership spotlight: How to give critical feedback well

Telling those you manage something they’d rather not hear is at best a challenge and at worst unproductive. Here’s how to do it effectively.


Feeding back criticism as well as praise is essential to developing people and improving their performance, yet few managers are naturally good at it. Some avoid difficult conversations until the issue is too bad to ignore – and often too big to fix. Others deliver it so clumsily that the recipient is left resentful and demoralised, rather than encouraged and empowered to do better work. What does effective feedback look like and how can we help others grow? Here are seven principles that will help you get better at those difficult conversations.

1. Get the cultural setting right

You need to create the right feedback culture if you want to be able to develop your people. The principle is to be transparent and clear about expectations and standards – people should not be left guessing and feedback should not come as a surprise. And it should be given frequently, in small doses, and not limited to annual reviews. This will further clarify expectations, nip problems in the bud and instil a continuous-learning mind set. You also need to model the right attitude towards feedback yourself. How open are you to receiving it? Do you show a willingness to understand your own shortcomings and work on them; to accept mistakes, learn from them and apologise if necessary? If so, it will be much easier for your people to accept negative feedback from you.

2. Get the relational setting right

Your critical feedback is more likely to be heard and accepted if you already have a positive relationship with your people. Conversely, if the relationship is strained and trust is in short supply, your feedback will not be as effective. This means that, to get the best out of your people, you need to build trust and good relationships: they need to know that you value them, that you are truly committed to their success and that your attitude toward them is fair and balanced. If all your feedback is negative, they will switch off and grow defensive. So, always be on the lookout for positive contributions and communicate your appreciation. If you genuinely have something nice to say, say it. Everyone wants to be noticed, appreciated and valued. If you regularly give positive feedback, your people will see that you are paying attention and know what behaviours they need to keep up and build on. Then, when you have to give critical feedback, you will have them on board with you and it will sting less.

3. Be honest about your motivations and don’t proceed before you have given yourself clearance

For feedback to work, it needs to come from the right place – a place of truthfulness and genuine care. People can usually sense whether you are sincerely trying to help them improve or whether your motivations are less altruistic – and they will respond accordingly. Maybe your ‘feedback’ is an attempt at shifting blame? Maybe you are just looking to put someone down so you can recover a sense of power after a hard day or week? Are you picking fault because you don’t like this person, or she is the protégé of a rival, or you didn’t hire her in the first place? Maybe she is not doing anything wrong, just not doing things the way you would have done? Before giving feedback, first check whether your intentions are right.

4. Minimise defensiveness and resistance

Critical feedback is difficult to take, even for the most emotionally robust among us. Accordingly, you should anticipate the emotional impact and expect some defensiveness. This needs to be minimised so that the recipient stays open to your input and the feedback can initiate real change. At a minimum, this requires you to refrain from sarcasm, blaming, attacking, venting, ranting and scolding – anything that would further threaten the recipient’s dignity. You should also never give feedback when angry or upset. Even if you believe such feelings are justified, they are unhelpful, preventing you from being balanced and triggering similar reactions in the recipient. This often results in counter-productive exchanges regretted by both parties later. Wait to cool down before giving critical feedback and if the session heats up at any point, consider taking a break. To help you stay balanced, remind yourself of the person’s valued contributions before any feedback meeting. No person should be reduced to a single mistake or problem.

5. Be precise, factual and objective

Perhaps the single most important principle of giving effective feedback is being factual and objective. You need to give people evidence, not personal opinions and feelings. You can achieve this in two steps: (1) First describe the specific situations and behaviour that triggered the feedback; and (2) describe the impact of the behaviour. For example, you could say, “Yesterday, at the meeting with the client, you could not answer Arun’s questions on the finances. I worried that the client will consider us incompetent or unenthusiastic about the project”. This is not the same as saying, “You couldn’t properly answer questions in client meetings and made us all look like fools,” which may have been your initial reaction. Because the former is precise and factual, the recipient can see exactly what the issue is and is less likely to disagree and get defensive. Don’t exaggerate for dramatic effect (“You clearly cannot be expected to show up prepared for any meeting”), don’t use generalisations that are almost certain to be wrong (“You never take any initiative”) and do not talk in adjectives (“You are unprofessional”). Instead, refer to actual instances and their impact, as objectively as you can, aiming for statements that an impartial observer would agree to.

6. Have a conversation and get them to take responsibility

Aim for a conversation rather than a monologue. It’s not fun to be talked at; by engaging in a conversation you will be able to see whether the recipient has heard your point, understood the impact of the behaviour in question and is psychologically ready to change. Prompt them with questions such as: “What are your thoughts about this?”, “What are you planning to do differently?” and “How would you like to take it from here?” This will help them clarify their thoughts, process the feedback and take responsibility for their actions.

7. You may not like everyone equally, but you must be fair to everyone

Fairness is the bedrock of good leadership. Apply standards consistently with everyone and make sure your criteria are relevant. Beware the danger of using as evaluation criteria your personal preferences that have nothing to do with performance (“I wish you looked happier when you see me”). People are entitled to their own ways as long as it does not hurt their or colleagues’ performance. Try hard to be fair when you are not neutral about someone as likes and dislikes distort our perceptions. Finally, remember that feedback should not be based on gossip or unverified, second-hand reports. This type of information is often one-sided and biased by personal agendas. Objectivity is crucial to effective feedback, so make sure you have your facts straight before you give it.

Selin Kesebir is Associate Professor of Organisational Behaviour at London Business School.