Best of TLNT 2017: 21 Of the Worst Ways to Give ‘Constructive’ Feedback

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Sep 1, 2017

Editor’s Note: It’s an annual tradition for TLNT to count down the most popular posts of the previous 12 months. We’re reposting each of the top 30 articles through January 2nd. This is No. 25 of 2017. You can find the complete list here.


If you’re like most managers — and most people in general — giving feedback is one of your least enjoyable experiences. It is also one of the weakest links between managers getting the output and outcomes they want and what they actually end up getting.

Research conducted by the authors of The 2020 Workplace revealed that of eight managerial capabilities and strengths employees wanted most from their manager “Will give me straight feedback” was ranked #1. Unfortunately, when HR professionals rated the managers in their organizations on these eight, “Will give me straight feedback” was ranked dead last.

Becoming more skilled at giving constructive feedback is a win/win because:

  • It makes both managers’ and employees’ work lives easier and more enjoyable.
  • It prevents performance issues from becoming termination-worthy because managers are willing to bring up issues earlier.
  • It enables managers to get far better results from their employees.
  • It enables employees to do higher quality of work, which leads to more satisfaction, pride, and sense of fulfillment.

In this article, we’ll explore how to avoid 21 of the most damaging mistakes when giving feedback. In future articles, we’ll explore principles and techniques for making sure your constructive feedback is indeed constructive.

When constructive feedback conversations go wrong

When a manager attempts to give constructive feedback, but does it ineffectively, the employee can end up:

  • Feeling misunderstood and unfairly judged—and therefore end up feeling hurt, angry, and resentful.
  • Feeling put down and disrespected.
  • Believing all the good things they do aren’t noticed or appreciated.
  • Believing their boss doesn’t know what he or she is talking about.
  • Being unclear about what they were doing wrong or what their manager wants, so they continue to make the same mistakes while feeling impotent and incompetent.
  • Leaving the interaction less motivated, less interested in doing a great job, and less interested in going the extra mile.

Thus, knowing how to give constructive feedback so it actually IS constructive should be on every manager’s professional development “To Do” list. Just as it’s important knowing what to do, it’s also important knowing what NOT to do.

21 mistakes to avoid

  1. Sugar coating negative feedback – When you’re afraid of hurting the other person’s feelings or triggering a negative response, it’s (unfortunately) natural to sugar coat negative feedback. The result? They can’t decipher what you’re trying to say or the seriousness of the matter.
  2. Caving in or backing down because the person is getting upset – While taking a time-out might be the best response when a person truly becomes unglued, revising your assessment downward or deciding “it’s not worth it” and aborting the mission are never appropriate responses.
  3. Avoiding the conversation until you’ve “had it up to here” – When we wait until that point, and are now in a frustrated, take-no-prisoners state, not much good is going to come out of the conversation. If we’re going for the throat, how could the other person NOT feel attacked and become defensive?
  4. Using an overly formal or forceful opening – Managers often do this as a way to let the person know they mean business and/or reduce the odds that the other person will “fight back.” While a serious, all-business demeanor is appropriate for very serious matters and egregious mistakes, it’s not necessary in most situations. No one likes to feel scolded or reprimanded like they’re a little kid in the principal’s office. Thus, when you use a low-key approach that communicates “We’re two adults here” instead of “You are about to be scolded by the principal” you accomplish two things: One, you elicit a much more receptive response, and; Two, you engender respect and appreciation. This strengthens your relationship, even though you are giving negative feedback, which makes it easier to give feedback in the future.
  5. “Controlling the airwaves” – Some managers use this as a preemptive move to prevent the feedback receiver from having the opportunity to disagree or make excuses. People who try to control the conversation so it’s actually a monologue seem to have the following belief: “If I don’t give the other person a chance to talk, they won’t be able to rebut what I’m saying or give me a hard time.” Anyone who has been “talked at” knows that this approach triggers resentment and resistance.
  6. Stating what you’re unhappy about, without offering a clear picture of what you want – If the receiver is not sure how to correct the situation, they are left feeling confused and impotent. Not only does this make it unlikely they will take action — or at least the right action — it will also likely leave them feeling angry and resentful.
  7. Plowing forward with an action plan without first getting agreement about the problem – Before you discuss solving the problem, you need to make sure the other person understands the problem and agrees it IS a problem. Without understanding and agreement, they will not be committed to an action plan. If they disagree with your assessment, they won’t be ready to discuss how to remedy the problem they don’t believe exists. Instead, they will be focused on what they see as your inaccurate and unfair perspective.
  8. Giving positive feedback without specifics – (e.g. “You’re awesome” or “You’re doing a great job!”) This is especially counterproductive for people with personality styles that value data, precision, and detail (e.g. a Conscientious type in the DISC profile). These people also tend to dislike flamboyant or emotional language. When they hear undefined and unspecified praise, they question the praise giver’s sincerity and knowledge about what they’re praising. Also, not giving specifics means a lost coaching opportunity. The old truism “What gets recognized gets repeated” means if we want to continue to see that great behavior, we need to specifically say what it looks and sounds like.
  9. Mistaking valid reasons for excuses – Some managers are so worried about being taken advantage of that they’re unable to recognize valid reasons and extenuating circumstances. To them, everything other than a “You’re right boss” agreement represents the employee trying to make excuses. When employees feel like their legitimate points are seen as excuses, they soon tune out the accuser and become resentful.
  10. Waiting for the once a year performance review to give feedback – This is always a great way to trigger confused “What are you talking about?” resentment-packed conversations. The key word in performance reviews is “review.” They’re not supposed to be a place to air late-breaking news.
  11. Using vague judgments without specific examples –Concepts like “be more of a team player,” “be more service oriented,” “be more professional” and “show more initiative” mean nothing without concrete, specific examples to illustrate them. Labels without examples leave people feeling helpless about making changes because they don’t know what specifically you’re unhappy about or what you want instead.
  12. Using the “sandwich technique— Some people still teach this technique, despite the fact that most people despise being on the receiving end of it. While it can be useful when done sincerely — and judiciously — most of the time it is NOT useful. Because it’s been used formulaically over the years, most of us know what’s coming. We know that right after the compliment, we are going to hear a “but…” and then some criticism. So all the time the person is delivering the compliment, we are steeling ourselves for the bad news we know is coming. This tends to make the sandwich hard to swallow. It also makes us doubt the sincerity — and therefore the trustworthiness — of the sender.
  13. Delivering a long warm-up preamble before giving the negative feedback – This just builds suspense for what they know is coming. Oftentimes people who are especially sensitive want to “soften the blow” by providing lots of context or disclaimers. While they are studiously setting the stage, the other person is likely wondering “What did I do wrong? What are they unhappy about? This must be really bad.”
  14. Using blunt, provocative, or shaming language to make a point – “I figured that would be obvious,” “That train has left the station, so let’s move on, huh?” or “Let’s be a grown up about this.” While some people feel being this way makes them look strong, it only makes them look rude and triggers anger and resentment in others.
  15. Pretending to agree and then disagreeing – This is the classic “That’s a good point, but…” This pattern is especially good at triggering defensiveness and the other person shutting down when it’s delivered with a vocal intonation that rises to a crescendo just before the “but” part comes. There’s a difference between honestly acknowledging the other person’s viewpoint and just pretending to agree as a way to soften them up for your opposing point of view.
  16. Not acknowledging their point of view or experience because you fear it indicates agreement — When you acknowledge another’s feelings or perspective, it communicates “I hear you. I get it.” It doesn’t mean “I agree with you.” If you have concerns the person might mistake your empathy for agreement, you can follow your acknowledgement of their view or experience with a statement that you see it differently.
  17. Winging it – One of the best ways to torpedo a feedback conversation is to make an assessment or judgment without getting all the facts and examining the logic of your perspective or assessment. Few things spark resentment or diminished respect for the criticizer than feeling inaccurately — and therefore unfairly — criticized.
  18. Telling them what’s going on inside their head –If you’ve ever had someone tell you they know what you’re thinking or what’s “really” going on inside your head, you know how alienating that is. So for instance: “I know there’s tension between you and Sarah because she got the Team Lead position you applied for, but…” If you have a good relationship with the other person, it’s fine to ask them if your guess about what’s going on is accurate; just don’t imply you know what’s going on inside their head (because you don’t — unless you have special mind-reading powers).
  19. Using your favorite way of receiving praise as a “one size fits all” approach with others – Our natural tendency is to praise people the way we like to be praised, but that only works for people who are like us. Also, if you don’t particularly need or want praise, don’t succumb to the belief that others don’t. What works for some personality types doesn’t work for others. This is one of the many areas of managing where learning personality styles can be extremely useful.
  20. Only taking the time to give corrective feedback and not positive feedbackGallup’s research revealed that 65% of employees reported not receiving any recognition in the previous year. Since positive feedback is a huge motivator — and being taken for granted is an even bigger de-motivator — only giving negative feedback is a huge mistake for those reasons alone. However, if the only time you give feedback is to say something negative, soon employees will have an automatic defensive, closed down response the moment you try to give them feedback… hardly the conditions for a constructive conversation.
  21. Using sarcastic humor to make a point – Some humor, used VERY judiciously, can lighten the tone and help diminish the sense of power differential that causes so much awkwardness when a boss gives a subordinate corrective feedback. That’s very different from using sarcasm or “just joking” comments to make a point (e.g. “Oh, you’re on the 8:23 AM to 4 PM shift now?”).

Turn the tables

Now, how about some constructive feedback for you?

If you’re really serious about finding out how you can improve your feedback giving skills, give this article to your team. Ask them to check off those mistakes they’ve experienced you most frequently making and would like you to work on avoiding.

Also, to balance things, ask them to identify the mistakes you are best at NOT making and which they are MOST appreciative of you not making.

It could be an eye opener.

It also can be a huge relationship and engagement building activity.

Asking for feedback shows that you don’t have the following mentality that some managers demonstrate: “Because I’m the boss I get to treat you however I want to, and you just have to learn to deal with it.” Instead, you are showing that you care about how you affect them, which means you care about, and respect, them.

Since research by the Gallup Organization and other firms has shown that manager’s caring about their employees has such a huge impact on employee motivation, loyalty, and performance, you get huge “employee motivation brownie points” just for asking.

As you know from your own experience, though, the asking HAS to be followed up by DOING. When managers or management as a whole solicits feedback or input and never does anything with it, employees develop a “why bother” attitude and lose respect and trust.

Marshall Goldsmith, an executive coach and author of the excellent book What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, notes that following up repeatedly with your team to check your progress makes a huge difference in a manager’s professional growth. Over the years, he has found that this is a core difference between executives who made improvements as identified by their team, and those who didn’t.

The importance of follow-up

Following up periodically enables you to accomplish multiple objectives. By following up and asking for feedback on your progress, you:

  • Get a reality check.
  • Show your employees you really do care about how you treat them.
  • Show your employees their feedback matters.
  • Show you’re humble enough to hear feedback and are not a Know-It-All
  • Increase the odds THEY will want to hear your feedback.
  • Will have a much more engaged, “go the extra mile” team.

OK, now get that feedback!