Gimme, gimme good feedback…

Giving good feedback is a vital skill in any job that involves dealing with people to any significant extent – in other words the vast majority of jobs that exist in the modern world. In my job I mainly use it to help people improve their performance in mock interview situations. It is just as valid in reviewing any situation where a measure of skill is required of someone, be it giving presentations, running meetings or projects, advising others or commercial or technical functions.

But many people do not have a clue how to give good feedback. You realise this if you observe them trying to do it from scratch. Most will launch straight into a speech of variable length on their own perceptions of the other person’s performance. Often what they offer is unbalanced. So some tend to pick endless faults, leaving the other person feeling depressed. Others tend to duck all the issues or offer an unrealistically rosy account of what happened, which can leave the other person no wiser and possibly feeling sheepish to have ‘got off’ too lightly.

Yet giving honest, constructive feedback is possibly one of the easiest and most helpful interpersonal skills you can ever hope to learn. Here’s how to do it, step by step, with commentary:-

1) Whilst observing the person’s performance, note down everything you think went well and everything that could have gone better.

2) Before starting the feedback, take some time to review what you have written and decide on two or three positive and negative points you will feed back to the person.

Two things are important about this stage:

  • There is no such thing as totally perfect or totally hopeless performance. There are always things that could be improved and always things that were achieved, however small. So you must have some points on either side of the balance sheet.
  • Too much feedback has been shown to be overwhelming and is likely to be as worthless as no feedback at all. This is why it is vital to cut it down to the key points. Life is a learning process, but only so much can be learned at any one time (‘bite-size chunks’).

3) Start the feedback by asking the person what they felt went well and not so well.

This point is absolutely vital. Research has shown that people gain most from feedback that reinforces their own perceptions. If you try this approach, you will be surprised how often the other person takes most of the words right out of your mouth. It also makes it far easier for you if you can start off by agreeing with them before moving on to less certain territory, and more likely that you will take them with you when you do.

4) Having made sure the person covers both the positive and not so positive points (and not everyone does so at first) ask if they are ready to hear what your thoughts were.

A nicety perhaps, but it does give the person a chance to opt into the process or say if there is anything else that is important to them.

5) Building first on what the other person has said, start off by relaying the positive points you observed.

6) Then move on to the points for improvement, again building on what they have said. Make sure you cover all the points you decided to feed back.

7) Return to re-emphasise the positive points in the performance before wishing them well next time they try the task.

In steps 5 – 7, the idea is to build a ‘sandwich’ structure of positive – negative – positive which leaves the person feeling safe, but confident enough to experiment with changes in the future.

Approached in this manner, feedback situations hold no terrors for either participant and are a major factor in improving performance in any organisation.

Colin Taylor is a careers adviser and freelance writer who has been publishing careers and employment related material for over five years. Find out more about him at