Delivering Feedback Fairly and Constructively

In my last blog post, I discussed strategies for dealing with tough feedback you’ve received and the consequences of avoiding colleagues who deliver it.

But what if you’re the messenger? Providing criticism is an unavoidable aspect of leadership. Those who do it well build firm cultures where people feel safe to speak up and feel motivated to improve, all for the sake of their clients.

Before delivering the feedback… 

  • Check your bias. We’re often drawn to evidence that confirms what we might already believe, such as a generalization about the employee’s age (e.g. boomers or millennials) or past performance. We also tend to be tougher on others than we are on ourselves.
  • Confirm facts without creating drama. What happened and what was the consequence? People might construct their own narrative, extrapolate or anchor their opinions unless you emphasize that this is a situation that can – and should – be overcome.
  • Gather background information. Does the feedback align with any management systems, such as a performance reviews or productivity metrics?

As you speak…

Tough criticism is best delivered face to face, in a well-considered conversation.

  • Ask, don’t tell. Yes, it’s important that the mistake(s) be corrected, but it’s also important to draw out defensiveness by learning the employee’s perspective, checking assumptions and building trust. Collaborating to find a path forward will feel a lot safer for everyone.
  • Look for small ways to improve that could deliver long-term results, and determine how meaningful they are to everyone involved.


  • Follow up. Don’t dust your hands off and walk away, thinking your job is done. It isn’t. Leaders earn a lot more respect if they ask the employee what his or her perspective is on the feedback after some time has passed.

There are as many management resources on providing feedback as there are situations that require it. If you’d like to learn more, two of the best I’ve found are Humble Inquiry by former MIT Sloan School of Management professor Edgar Schein and Fierce Conversations by Susan Scott, a Seattle based consultant who has worked with CEOs and executives at major corporations for several decades.

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