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6 Tips for Giving Effective Critical Feedback

Image via Marcin Balcerzak/

It starts off slow. A few employees, here or there, start rolling their eyes when “that guy” talks. A few even make comments or vent to you directly. You offer advice, you don’t hear about it for a while and assume it’s better, right? Wrong. While you’ve been wishing a problem away, it’s built, insidiously, into a huge distraction for the office. After months of frustration, several come to you directly and ask you do to something about “that guy” (or lady).

As a manager, these are some of the most difficult moments you face. But managing interpersonal issues is a central part of your responsibilities. It’s your job to manage your team and right the ship. So, how do you do that, and do it in a way that is effective?

1. Focus on Observable Behaviors

Be very specific and do not, I repeat, do not, label behavior. Don’t say, “You’re not a team player,” say “When you said ‘That’s not my job, and it’s not my problem’ after I asked you to pitch in and help the team meet a deadline, it made me feel as though you’re not interested in advancing the team’s performance.” Focusing on those behaviors you have seen, that which you have heard directly or seen yourself, avoids putting someone on the defensive.

You can only manage what you see. People can’t change a non-specific label they’ve been assigned—like being rude, difficult, dramatic or lazy. When you’re specific about a behavior, that’s something a person can work to change.

2. Your Action Was, It Made Me Feel, I Request That…

A great model for offering feedback has three parts:

First, state what the action was: Again, focus on observable behavior. Speak to a very specific action you saw.

Second, say how that action made you feel: It made me feel “you’re not focused on the team” or “that my requests don’t matter.” Make sure they understand how their behavior affects you and why you’re the one bringing it up.

Finally, request a change: Next say, I request that…”you offer to help in future situations” or “you be more clear about why you are unable to help.” When you make a request, it gives someone three options—deny, accept or counteroffer. It allows them to play a part in designing the solution.

3. Speak Only For Yourself

Under no circumstances should you speak for anyone except yourself. Don’t ever say “we feel” or “the team feels.” It makes the individual feel attacked and positions them to leave the meeting feeling as though everybody is talking about them. That’s not a place that makes people feel supported, confident or empowered. Unless you’re intent is to mediate a conflict, leave the words of others out of the conversation.

4. Know Your “Come From”

As you prepare to talk to the employee in question, examine your own “come from.” Are you coming from a place of obligation (i.e. I have to do this because I was asked to)? Are you coming from a place of anger (i.e. I’m furious at this person and I’m more interested in venting than I am in a solution)? Or are you coming from a place of caring (i.e. I want this employee to be more effective in the office because I care about them and their development). I’d argue the latter is most powerful. In demonstrating your “come from,” tell the employee why you’re taking the time to speak with them--they'll see this isn't easy for you either.

5. Ask How You Can Be Supportive

This is an important question to end with. “How can I be most supportive to you?” You want to let the employee know that this conversation isn’t the end of it, that you’re there to help. Ask them to think creatively about how you can support them—do they need you to leave a post-it for them reminding them of the change, do they need you to offer more regular feedback, do they need you to be an ambassador to the rest of the office, etc. Whatever it is, be willing to support them in their efforts to become more effective.

6. Encourage Face-to-Face Conversations

Finally, office culture is so often defined today by a broad-based lack of courage—a fear of having tough face-to-face conversations. It's much easier to vent to fellow employees, often the first step in creating a toxic work environment. Unless it’s a dangerous situation or something that requires HR, encourage employees who are having difficulties to settle their differences one-on-one. Offer to coach them on how to give effective feedback or even offer to sit in as a mediator.

As a manager, you seldom know all the facts. If, for instance, the two parties in question continually come to you about the problem—you’re likely being recruited to pick a side. Listening to all that complaining kills your productivity and delays fixing the problem. Remove yourself from the drama—empower your team to solve its own problems.

What other tips do you have for effective feedback?

(Image via Martin Balcerzak/

Mark Micheli is Special Projects Editor for Government Executive Media Group. He's the editor of Excellence in Government Online and contributes to GovExec, NextGov and Defense One. Previously, he worked on national security and emergency management issues with the US Treasury Department and the Department of Homeland Security. He's a graduate of the Coro Fellows Program in Public Affairs and studied at Drake University.

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