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Feedback: These things must be done delicately

One of the hardest skills for us at work — and in our personal lives, too — is giving feedback to others without those other people becoming defensive, confused or completely soured on the relationship.

Much has been written about how to provide feedback, especially in delicate situations such as cases of lackluster performance or unproductive behaviors at work. Here are my top tips for delivering feedback effectively and focusing on the outcome: improvement in performance.

Make it about the “what” not the “who.” This means to make sure the feedback is always about the issue or the problem and its consequences, not about the person. Personalizing the situation is not productive because it takes the focus off the real concern and has the potential to make the other person unnecessarily defensive right from the start.

Give it now. The best feedback always comes as close as possible to the event precipitating it. Address feedback head-on by keeping it timely and relevant. Do not store up concerns or issues or otherwise postpone feedback. Delaying feedback causes it to lose its effect. It also may raise questions about your effectiveness as a manager or even your motivations.

Be prepared with specifics. Identify the situation, give precise examples of the behavior and explain its impact. For example, a manager practicing this approach might tell an employee, “I’d like to talk to you about the report that you submitted yesterday. I noticed that it had several errors. The impact is that it gives incorrect data to accounting, which bills our customer. As a result, we get paid less, and it makes us look careless to our customer and our colleagues.”

Hear out the other person. Let him or her explain the situation from his or her point of view. When you do this, it’s also a good idea to ask yourself some probing questions to make sure you are seeing the situation clearly.

Some good questions to ask include: Is the other person aware of the situation or incident? What does the other person understand about the situation? Does the other person understand the adverse effects of his or her behavior?

You may be surprised to find that the other person has information you didn’t know that could change your understanding of the circumstances, sometimes dramatically so.

Work together on improvement. Your role as a manager or provider of feedback should always be to help the other person come up with ways that he or she can improve. Encourage the changes that are needed to correct the problem. In doing so, try to let the other person save face while making amends and committing to a better approach.

Together, develop specific plans to improve outcomes moving forward. Suggest a follow-up meeting to provide accountability and commitment. Be sure to offer praise when improvements occur. But if no changes are evident after a while, you’ll need to discuss next steps and consequences.

By using these guidelines, you should be able to provide feedback that is more valuable, constructive and productive. You also should see better results. In addition, you and the other person in the conversation should feel better about giving and receiving feedback in the future.

Pam Solberg-Tapper

Pam Solberg-Tapper, president of Coach for Success Inc., is a Duluth-based executive coach, professional speaker and adventure marathoner. For questions or to submit questions or ideas for future columns, please contact her at or (218) 729-0772.