Leading Fearlessly: Expert advice on providing feedback that’s accepted – not rejected

Published by Suzanna de Baca on

At a previous job, I supervised a talented leader who struggled to provide constructive feedback to her team members because she worried that pointing out performance issues would hurt her employees’ feelings. One day, I asked her how she would feel if she was doing something wrong at work and no one told her, but instead just kept being frustrated with her. She answered, “I’d be upset that they didn’t give me a chance to fix the problem and improve.” A lightbulb went on for her when she finally realized that giving feedback is actually a kind thing to do, and is necessary to help your team members learn and grow.

For women leaders, learning to give feedback can be complicated by social expectations with which many of us were raised. A Harvard Business Review article says, “Research shows that leaders who are women, much more than their male counterparts, are expected to be warm and nice (traditionally seen as female traits) as well as competent and tough (traits traditionally expected from men and leaders).” As the authors point out, this can be a difficult line to walk.

Fortunately, giving feedback – and receiving it – is a skill that can be learned and practiced. And as my former colleague finally realized, giving frank and honest feedback is critical to helping your team members succeed, and can be a gift when presented in a constructive manner.

I turned to several local leaders who have expertise in people leadership and asked them for advice on giving feedback.


Emily Abbas, executive vice president, chief consumer banking and marketing officer, Bankers Trust:

Giving constructive and effective feedback is one of the most important skills any leader needs in order to help develop employees to their fullest potential. Unfortunately, it can make some people uncomfortable. I’ve found getting comfortable starts with being in the right mindset, which is offering feedback as the gift it is, followed by being timely, specific, and sharing the impact of their actions. Here are some considerations for giving feedback:

  • Timeliness: Give the feedback as close to the situation or opportunity as possible. Don’t wait for a performance review or a regularly scheduled meeting. That way the team member is more likely to remember the circumstances and they can make the recommended adjustments as soon as possible and/or feel good about the recognition provided.
  • Specificity: Focus on details and specific examples of what the person did or did not do well. If the feedback is constructive, then this is also a good time to reinforce that you are giving them this feedback because you believe they can do better and want to improve.
  • Impact: Explain the impact of their actions – good or bad. While this may include impact on customers, other team members, or business, consider also sharing how it made you feel. They can’t disagree or argue with that. For example, “When you rolled your eyes in the meeting as we were walking out, it made me feel like you weren’t on board with the plan the rest of the team agreed upon, and I wondered if we can count on you to engage and do your best work.”

There are two sides to the feedback coin. When it comes to receiving, it may help to remember that leaders only take the time to give feedback to those they believe are an integral part of the team and worthy of their time and attention. Congratulations if that is you!


Rachelle Chase, published author, public speaker, journalist and founder of Uniting Through History:

It’s easy to give an employee positive feedback. But what about when it’s not-so-positive? Here are five tips for giving constructive feedback:

Start with the positive. Opening the conversation with what an employee is doing wrong can immediately put them on the defensive. Even when there’s an area they need to work on, there are always things they are doing well. So, start with the positive and then segue to what needs improvement.  

Words matter. Vague compliments like “great job” and “good work” can sound meaningless, while using words like “wrong” and “poorly” to indicate where improvement is needed can make employees defensive or cause them to shut down. Instead of relying on adjectives, be specific. For example, “Your new marketing plan helped the team increase sales by 10% this month – great job” is more meaningful than “Great job this month,” just as, “Your budget projections are low this month,” is more helpful than “Your budget projections are wrong.”

Be part of the solution. Don’t simply state the areas that need improvement. Find out the reason for the issue and offer solutions. For example, if an employee is having problems meeting deadlines, perhaps they feel overwhelmed by too much work or deadlines that are too tight or they’re experiencing a personal issue that’s affecting their work. What can you do to help? Or better yet, what help does the employee want?    

Don’t let problems build. Even an employee receptive to criticism can become defensive if given a laundry list of areas needing improvement. Don’t let problem areas accumulate and then deal with them in a single meeting. Instead, address one or two issues soon after they arise. Not only will this allow the employee to correct issues before annual review time, it will eliminate surprises.

Open communication is key. Whether giving feedback or offering solutions, it is important that the employee also participate in the conversation. Do they understand what needs improvement? Do they agree? Do they have feedback for you? And remember to schedule one-on-one meetings just to check in with employees or discuss new projects to help promote open communication all year long.


Jody Gifford, communications and public relations strategist, NCMIC:

There were times early in my career when I’d go out of my way to avoid (giving and getting) feedback. I’d been led to believe that feedback was more criticism, less constructive, and if I could sidestep it, then I could avoid hurting myself or someone else.

Women are often stereotyped as being more sensitive and less able to accept criticism. Society seems to judge us more harshly for our mistakes, and we have a hard time asking for help because we fear looking weak or incompetent. In the workplace, we don’t say what’s on our mind for fear we might miss out on that raise or get passed up for a promotion.

I stopped believing all that noise long ago. I’m a more conscious leader today — self-aware, responsible and curious — and opening myself up to receiving feedback (positive and negative) has been an important part of my personal growth and development.

Once I was able to accept and process feedback, I quickly realized what works for giving it, too. Some tips that have worked for me:

  • It starts with appreciation. Acknowledge a person’s positive qualities before focusing on their negative ones. Make sure they know that a bad thing doesn’t always cancel a good one.
  • Be specific and clear. Focus on the behavior, not the person. Explain what you saw and how it affected you or others around you.
  • Be positive and supportive. This is an opportunity for growth. Encourage their efforts, offer your support, and make suggestions for improvement.
  • Listen actively. When you’re finished, ask if they have questions or if they need clarification. Ask how they’re feeling. Listen first and respond when it’s appropriate.
  • End on a positive note. Reiterate your support and confidence in their abilities to make changes.
  • Above all, be respectful and empathetic. Show consideration for their feelings and avoid being judgmental or condescending. Think about how you would receive the feedback you’re giving.

Elizabeth Nigut, executive vice president, EMC Insurance Companies:

Effectively delivering feedback can be challenging for both the recipient and the person delivering. It is important for leaders and team members to develop an agreed-upon approach for delivering feedback. It’s helpful to have that existing framework to refer back to when the need arises. When it does, I first examine my own intent behind the feedback to ensure I am running a check on my assumptions and biases. I also recommend writing feedback down to help in that process, and to be thoughtful about aligning my intent with the anticipated impact on the recipient. It is important to have developed a trusting relationship with the person, as I want to make sure that our relationship remains intact and is strengthened by the ability to have an open conversation.

I have found it helpful to foster openness and reduce anxiety and defensiveness by expressing my intent behind the feedback, as well as letting them know I care about them as a person and their professional growth. I ask if they are open to receiving feedback and if the time is good. I want to balance providing timely and specific feedback with the potential that outside forces may be affecting their work.

After sharing, I ask open-ended questions such as what their thoughts are; what may be going on in their world; or how they are feeling, to allow them to process and respond so their experience and perspective is heard. I like to ensure clarity between the feedback that was delivered and what the recipient understands. Then, we can agree on any actions that should be taken, what resources may be needed or how I can help. I also ask for feedback on how I delivered the message and how I can improve. The goal is deepening the trusting relationship, learning and growing, creating accountability and providing support.

Categories: Leadership