5 Ways Leaders Can Improve How They Give Feedback

Giving feedback is a balancing act. Be clear, but not rude. Be kind, but not confusing. Get your point across without making anyone cry or rage. As a leader, it’s essential you master this balancing act as soon as possible because your feedback is invaluable.

Leaders have the opportunity to endorse and nurture good behavior, and the power to clarify where there’s room for improvement. In short, leaders can help others grow and improve.

We’ve put together five simple and actionable tips that will help leaders deliver effective feedback to their people.

1. Be Clear

When you’re giving feedback, be as clear as possible. This may sound basic, but it’s amazing how often feedback goes awry.

Whether your feedback is on someone’s behavior, their conceptual project, or a detailed piece of work, it should be clear and actionable. You should know exactly what you’re trying to achieve with your feedback and what the desired outcome is (and if you don’t know that, don’t give the feedback until you do).

For example, one of my personal pet peeves when it comes to written feedback is when reviewers simply put a ‘?’ mark in a Comments box. What does that mean? Is my writing confusing? Do you want me to clarify something or change the paragraph entirely?

Remember; your colleagues aren’t mind readers, so make your points clear and specific.

Not sure clarity is all that important? In this 1000+person poll by the Computer Technology Industry Association, poor communication was determined to be the main reason that most IT projects fail. And, according to David Grossman, employee misunderstandings cost $37 billion annually (among 400 surveyed 100,000-employee companies in the US and UK).

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2. Hold Regular Check-In Meetings

Regular check-in meetings are essential. They’re a great way to keep lines of communication open and chat about any friction points before they fester into larger issues.

The best one-to-one meetings I’ve had weren’t about work at all—at least not the nuts and bolts of work. They were for discussing my well-being at work: what’s going well and what could be going better.

My last manager was excellent at leading these meetings. As the leader of our team, she did lead the meetings, but she successfully led them from behind. We would meet every Friday for half an hour to discuss the past working week, and she would emphasize that this was my half an hour. If topics didn’t crop up organically, she would prompt me with questions. Here is a handful of them:

• How was your week overall?

• Anything tricky you had to deal with?

• Any great moments?

• How’s your workload?

• How was working with so-and-so on that project?

• Anything you’re not enjoying?

• Anything you want to do more of?

Then she listened. And asked follow-up questions. These meetings soon became a “safe space” where I knew I had a designated time to speak openly and seek out advice and counsel.

If you’re a leader and you don’t already hold regular check-ins, it’s time to start. Here are more details on how to prepare for these meetings if you’re feeling unsure.

If you’re a leader and you don’t already hold regular check-ins, it’s time to start.

3. Be Emotionally Intelligent

Some leaders don’t struggle with clarity when giving feedback. It’s clear how they feel. What they lack is the padding around the clarity. The bubble wrap that softens the blow.

Unfortunately, if giving feedback this way isn’t your natural strength, you may not realize it. As a leader, you’ll often have more authority than the person you’re giving feedback to, which commonly affects the nature of the dialogue and their willingness to be frank with you.

Unless you’re able to create an environment in which people are comfortable giving you perfectly honest feedback, it’s best to err on the side of caution and put some emotional intelligence into practice. Here’s an actionable article on how to do that.

4. Recognize the Good

When was the last time you took the time to thank someone for a good piece of work? Or let them know that you value the way they show up to work each day with a great attitude? It’s so easy to forget that you need to give feedback in the good times as well as the bad. According to Gallup:

“A vast majority (67%) of employees who strongly agree that their manager focuses on their strengths or positive characteristics are engaged, compared with 31% of employees who strongly agree that their manager focuses on their weaknesses.”

If you don’t recognize good work, don’t be surprised to see it run dry. I’ve seen many star performers become disenchanted after their leaders failed to notice (or recognize) their discretionary efforts. So, be sure to acknowledge good work and behavior and do it promptly. Timing is vital.

If you don’t recognize good work, don’t be surprised to see it run dry.

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5. It’s Not the Person, It’s the Work

If you’re giving feedback on someone’s work (not their behavior), never make it personal: separate a person from their work.

The idea, simply, is to ensure you’re always giving feedback on the work and not on the person. This plays out in careful language choices.

For example, if you didn’t like an aspect of your designer’s new mockup or your marketer’s ad copy, don’t say: “I’m not a fan of what you’ve done here” or “You’ve missed the point entirely.” Instead, try “I’m not a fan of this color gradient” or, “I think this ad copy has missed the mark because it won’t relate to our target audience.”

This simple redirection can go a long way. It makes the feedback less personal by separating the work and the person. Using this strategy, along with a healthy dose of emotional intelligence, will give your employees a clear path forward in their work without tearing them down.

If you want to learn more about this concept, Elizabeth Gilbert (author of Eat, Pray, Love) explores it in her exceptional Ted Talk. She suggests separating the “creator” from the “genius” (just as the ancient Romans did) in order to preserve the psychological safety of individuals. Here’s an excerpt from what she has to say:

“The Romans did not actually think that a genius was a particularly clever individual. They believed that a genius was this, sort of magical divine entity […] who would come out and sort of invisibly assist the artist with their work and would shape the outcome of that work. […]

“And everyone knew that this is how it functioned, right? So the ancient artist was protected from certain things, like, for example, too much narcissism, right? If your work was brilliant, you couldn’t take all the credit for it, everybody knew that you had this disembodied genius who had helped you. If your work bombed, not entirely your fault, you know? Everyone knew your genius was kind of lame.”


As a leader, it’s vital that you give feedback. But the way in which you deliver it is just as important. Be clear, present, conscientious, balanced, and always remember to critique the work (not the person) if your feedback is not on behavior.

About the Author:

Hannah Price is a Digital Content Marketing Specialist at Jostle. Her writing is all about enabling readers to make small changes that have a positive impact on their work environment. When she’s not tapping away at her laptop, she’s exploring beautiful BC and beyond. You can contact her via LinkedIn or @JostleMe.