The Ultimate Guide to Effective Feedback in the Workplace

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Does your workplace have a culture of feedback? Are you skilled at giving and receiving feedback?

Effective feedback in the workplace is important. Whether it’s delivered in a formal evaluation or a frustrated outburst, feedback is vital information that can lead to positive changes in you and your organization. We’ve assembled some best practices for giving, receiving, soliciting, and incorporating feedback, as well as some tips regarding feedback in other cultures.

Keep reading for insights on effective feedback in the workplace.

The Importance of Feedback

Feedback tells you how other people see you, your words, and your actions. In their book Thanks for the Feedback, Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen write that a person’s ability to succeed depends in large part on her ability to seek, understand, and incorporate feedback into her life. This is true on an individual level as well as an organizational level and in both professional and personal life.

According to Stone and Heen, individuals who actively seek out feedback have higher job satisfaction, performance ratings, and creativity, and are better able to adapt to new systems and roles. Organizations that foster a culture open to feedback develop talent better, have lower turnover and better morale, and are better able to coordinate their teams to solve problems.

One of the unconventional business practices that Reed Hastings implemented at Netflix was to promote candid, frequent feedback at all levels. As he revealed in his book No Rules Rules, Hastings learned that he could maximize the potential of all the company’s talented employees by encouraging them to be open and vocal with everyone on the team. Frequent feedback became so ingrained in Netflix’s culture that not speaking up was considered an act of disloyalty because it inhibited the company’s improvement.

Like Hastings, hedge fund billionaire Ray Dalio believes that it’s actually a sign of care and respect to tell people what they need to improve. In Principles, Dalio writes that everyone at his hedge fund Bridgewater has the obligation to speak up because doing so allows people to address issues and weaknesses right away instead of letting them fester and cause bigger problems later on.

Types of Feedback in the Workplace

We can separate types of feedback in the workplace in two ways: the goal of the feedback and how the feedback is delivered.

First, let’s look at three kinds of feedback in the context of the goal, from Thanks for the Feedback:

  • Evaluation: This kind of feedback is an assessment. Its goals are to tell you where you stand in relation to expectations and to other people, to align expectations between two people, and to clarify consequences.
  • Coaching: This kind of feedback is advice. Its goal is to help you improve, learn, grow, or change, either to meet new challenges or to correct an existing problem.
  • Appreciation: This kind of feedback is recognition, motivation, and thanks. Its goal is to let you know that your efforts are noticed, making you feel worthwhile.

Next, let’s look at three types of feedback in the workplace in the context of the way it’s delivered.

Formal Feedback

Formal feedback is less daunting than delivering impromptu feedback, writes Reed Hastings in No Rules Rules. He recommends making feedback an agenda item for meetings, providing instructions and a clear structure for the feedback, and investing time and effort in relationship building to soften the sting of negative feedback.

No matter how much you preach the benefits of candor, some people will still avoid giving and receiving honest feedback because it’s often uncomfortable. For that reason, Hastings implemented two types of 360 reviews to ensure that everyone participates.

Annual Written 360-Degree Reviews

Hastings created a non-hierarchical feedback system—the annual written 360. Each employee receives written feedback from any colleague who wants to give it—including supervisors, coworkers, and subordinates. Feedback recipients can follow up with commenters about how to improve, and these discussions are often more valuable than the initial comments. 

Live 360-Degree Reviews

Hastings saw that the discussions following written feedback were effective, so he implemented live 360 reviews. A manager and her team gather for several hours, and each employee takes a turn receiving feedback. Although this process can be uncomfortable and potentially embarrassing, the feedback could save receptive employees from being fired in the future.

Unsolicited Feedback

Unsolicited feedback is feedback that you didn’t ask for or necessarily want. It’s someone telling you that you need to improve in a manner that, to you at least, seems totally unprompted. In reality, your continued bad behavior is probably what triggered the person’s outburst.

For example, imagine you’re hosting a meeting and, for what seems like the hundredth time, you fail to listen to what a colleague is saying. The colleague spontaneously calls you out for your poor listening skills.

In What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, Marshall Goldsmith writes that the major downside of this type of feedback is that it usually takes a long time for people to become so frustrated with your behavior that they can no longer hold their tongue. This makes unsolicited feedback unsuitable as a consistent source of information.

Observational Feedback

Goldsmith also discusses observational feedback, which is feedback about your reputation that you can gain by watching how people behave in your presence. It involves analyzing cues such as people’s body language, their tone of voice, and what they say to you. 

For example, imagine that you notice that a certain colleague refuses to look you in the eye when you’re talking to them or responds to all of your ideas in a brusque manner. This might imply that you’ve upset the person in some way.

The downside of this type of feedback is that it isn’t specific. While it might indicate that you’re doing something to upset your colleagues, it doesn’t necessarily tell you exactly what you’re doing wrong. You’ll need to use a different type of feedback to figure out this missing piece.

Giving Feedback

Whether you’re a leader or a coworker, it’s important to know how to give effective feedback in the workplace. Here are several recommendations.

Give Feedback Early

In Carrots and Sticks Don’t Work, Paul Marciano writes that, the sooner you give feedback, the better. There’s less room to argue when the behavior in question is still fresh in everyone’s mind. You also eliminate the argumentative question of “Why is this an issue now?

In Radical Candor, Kim Scott warns that, when you wait to give effective feedback in the workplace, you risk forgetting exactly what you wanted to talk about or the specifics of a situation. The feedback recipient will become frustrated when you give criticism but can’t think of any examples to illustrate your point. Also, when you wait to give feedback, you’ll often find that problems are too far in the past to be fixed—or that successes are too far in the past to be built upon.

Scott provides two caveats to this advice. First, if you or the other person is angry, tired, or hungry, wait and deliver criticism when you’re both in a better mindset. Second, if your criticism isn’t important or feels nitpicky, don’t say it right away. Take some time to consider if it needs to be said at all. 

Give Feedback Often

Not only should feedback generally be given early, but it should also be given often. Marciano explains that a lack of support signals to the employee that she doesn’t matter much and there’s no hope for her. This can set off a vicious cycle of disengagement and confirmation bias by the manager (“I knew Tim was no good. Look at how disengaged he is. I’m not going to waste time on him.”).

If you give feedback often enough, Marciano points out, performance reviews shouldn’t contain any surprises. Some managers give so little effective feedback in the workplace that employees are left in the dark about how they’re doing. Then, in end-of-year reviews, the manager shows up with a problem from eight months ago. How does this feel fair to the employee? Don’t pile up all the bad news to unleash all at once. A coach doesn’t wait until the season’s over to tell his team how much they could improve.

In The Hard Thing About Hard Things, Ben Horowitz identifies several benefits of constant feedback:

  • It gives people ways to improve. In turn, this makes them more productive and makes them feel you care about their development. 
  • It makes personnel decisions easier, such as writing performance reviews and deciding compensation and promotions.
  • It normalizes effective feedback in the workplace. If you model the behavior, your team will be comfortable sharing bad news and telling each other how to improve.

Structure the Conversation

Thanks for the Feedback lays out the anatomy of a feedback conversation. The authors recommend using your opening to connect and align with the other person, using the body of the conversation to discuss the issues, and using the closing to clarify future expectations and plan a follow-up. (In Dare to Lead, Brené Brown also mentions alignment between you and the feedback recipient. She suggests that you do this by focusing on your values. For example, having the core value of teamwork might push you to work together with the recipient to come up with solutions.)

In Carrots and Sticks Don’t Work, Marciano cautions against using “sandwich feedback” where you give one positive, one constructive, and one positive. This feels artificial, and people might feel you’re saying the positive feedback only out of formality. Daniel Coyle, the author of The Culture Code, also advises that you avoid the sandwich, arguing that it can be confusing. Instead, give positive and negative feedback separately:

  • Handle negative feedback through dialogue. Discuss areas of improvement, focusing on how to improve, not necessarily on the failure itself.
  • Deliver positive feedback using energetic praise and authenticity. Genuine enthusiasm motivates and inspires hard-working employees.

Be Clear and Specific

Vague feedback is useless, argues Ben Horowitz (The Hard Thing About Hard Things). “It’s good—just needs one more pass” isn’t helpful. Point out precisely what needs work. For example, “Your conclusion is confusing because it doesn’t logically follow from the earlier slides.”

In Radical Candor, Kim Scott writes that it’s tempting to give vague criticism so you don’t have to dive into the discomfort of fully discussing a tough situation. But, being vague doesn’t give actionable ideas for improvement. Precision about what’s good or bad about someone’s behavior clearly demonstrates what they should do more or less of.

Daniel Goleman agrees. In Emotional Intelligence, he recommends that, if you can, pick one specific example that summarizes what you’d like them to change. Break down what they did that was successful and what they did that was not successful.

Finally, Marciano (Carrots and Sticks Don’t Work) stresses that it’s particularly important that the actionable is clear. The feedback recipient needs to be sure what they should do differently so it’s not perceived as just complaining on your part. Goleman writes that, if you’re giving them feedback, it’s because you have an idea of how it should be different. So, you should point them in the direction of a solution or two that they can try.

Show That You Care

In Carrots and Sticks Don’t Work, Marciano contends that managers should provide effective feedback in the workplace with the mindset of a coach: I want you to be successful. This viewpoint makes employees feel cared for and lowers defensiveness (compared to the situation if the manager were just berating the employee). Always make feedback about the behavior, not about the person—no “you have a bad attitude.” When delivering notably critical feedback, take extra care to frame it in a supportive manner.

Be candid, not brutal. That’s the advice of Daniel Coyle as presented in The Culture Code. You don’t want to demoralize or embarrass the person you are giving feedback to. But, at the same time, you need to be straightforward with your feedback. The best approach is to aim for candor: make your feedback specific and avoid making it personal or judgmental.

Coyle advises using belonging cues in your feedback. These are reminders of belonging that allow team members to gradually feel more comfortable and safe. They remind people that your feedback is meant to be constructive and helpful. When team members know they are appreciated and cared for, they are much more receptive to critique.

He also recommends giving “Magical Feedback.” An Ivy League study shows that the use of “magical feedback” drastically improves response and performance. It makes sure team members know the following:

  • They are valuable.
  • They are part of a special group with high expectations.
  • They have the capacity to match and exceed those expectations.

Remember that effective feedback in the workplace is in the context of a relationship—one that needs to weather criticisms. Coyle uses the example of Joe Maddon, a coach for the Chicago Cubs. When he needs to discipline a player, he calls them into his office, has them draw a piece of paper with the name of an expensive wine out of a glass bowl, and has them purchase the wine. Then he shares the bottle of wine with them while he speaks with them. This disciplines the player while opening the door for reconnection.

Provide Feedback Face-to-Face

Written communication lacks the 90% of the communication that nonverbal cues would make up, writes Goleman in Emotional Intelligence. When possible, give feedback in person—and be emotionally present.

In Radical Candor, Kim Scott agrees that it’s best to deliver your feedback in person. You can see how your feedback is being received by the other person, and you avoid misunderstandings that can come from the nuances of written communication. If your employee is upset, you can show them support. If they’re not taking you seriously, you can challenge them directly to show that your feedback should be important to them.

Sometimes, the importance of speaking in person will directly conflict with immediacy, such as when your employee is in another city. In these cases, prioritize immediacy over in-person delivery unless you’re talking about something very important such as promoting or firing someone. Video chat is your best option, followed by a phone call. Emails or texts should be avoided at all costs unless absolutely necessary.

Customize Your Approach

In The Hard Thing About Hard Things, Ben Horowitz explains that some people are delicate; others are thick-skinned. Some people get the point right away; others need a message drilled in. Delivering the message the wrong way for the person will be counterproductive.

To increase receptivity to negative feedback, Thomas Erikson (Surrounded by Idiots) explains how to provide negative feedback to an employee based on his or her personality type. For example, with some, you might need to leave feelings out of it and come prepared for a battle. With others, you might need to massage their ego and use specific examples.

Follow Up

The end of the feedback conversation is not the end of the feedback process. In Carrots and Sticks Don’t Work, Marciano recommends that you follow up with employees after giving effective feedback in the workplace to reinforce the positive change and hold them accountable for improvement.

Receiving Feedback

How you receive feedback greatly impacts the feedback’s effectiveness. It also affects the relationship between you and the feedback giver. Especially if you’re a leader, how you receive feedback sets the tone for others. Here are several recommendations.

Have the Right Mindset

When you receive feedback, strive to be as objective as possible. Consider that the feedback is true and fair. Keep in mind that good feedback helps you, and trust that the deliverer has your best interest in mind. In Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman stresses that you should see criticism as an act of caring designed to help you improve, not as a personal attack.

Goleman also writes that you should regard effective feedback in the workplace as a cooperative endeavor. It’s an opportunity to work with others toward improvement. Go into a feedback meeting assuming that this is a project you’re working on together.


Goleman admits that it’s easy to get defensive when we perceive we’re being attacked. If you feel the criticism is unfair, you can express that. But, if you find yourself making excuses, pause and listen to what the feedback giver is saying before you launch into defending yourself.

In Radical Candor, Kim Scott explains that telling the feedback giver that their criticism is wrong will make them hesitant to share feedback again. Instead, listen for valuable parts of the criticism that you can act on or respond to. Also, be careful not to become angry or defensive. Instead, listen with the intent to fully understand the criticism. You can do this by repeating what’s been said and checking that your interpretation is correct.

Manage Your Emotions

In Thanks for the Feedback, Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen share a way to ensure that you receive and respond to feedback productively: Understand your triggers, or the knee-jerk responses, that cause you to dismiss or get angry about feedback. Understanding these responses, they explain, will help you gain control over them. For example, you may negatively respond to feedback because your colleague—and not your boss—is giving it to you, even though she’s making a valid point. But, if you understand that feedback from this specific colleague triggers you, you can separate your frustrations about who is giving you the feedback from your receptivity to the content of the feedback.

Brené Brown, in Dare to Lead, adds that focusing on your values when receiving effective feedback in the workplace can help you channel your emotions productively, toward insight and learning, rather than defensively. You can do this by entering the conversation with a value-supporting thought or behavior, such as “Paying attention will make me a better teammate” (value of teamwork), or “I will ask questions and fully understand” (value of curiosity).

Accept Responsibility

Goleman (Emotional Intelligence) writes that the feedback giver has probably identified something you know you struggle with. Accept responsibility for your mistakes, and motivate yourself to learn how to correct them.

Appreciate (Value) the Feedback

In Radical Candor, Scott says that showing your gratitude for criticism encourages people to keep giving it. The best way to show gratitude for criticism is by responding with demonstrated change. If it’s a change that can be done right away, do so. If it’s a change that can’t be accomplished right away, make a perceptible effort toward the change. For example, imagine you’re told that you tend to use a condescending tone when employees are talking about setbacks or obstacles they bump into. So, you ask your employees to help you correct this behavior over the long term by simply saying “tone” as soon as they hear you being condescending.

Scott contends that it’s important to express gratitude for criticism even when you think it’s unfair or don’t agree. Arguing with or dismissing criticism you disagree with will only serve to undermine the trust you’re trying to build, so instead focus on ways to work through it. First, find something in the criticism that you can agree with—this demonstrates your openness to guidance and that you’re not shutting down completely. Then, make sure you fully understand what the other person is expressing; repeat the criticism back to make sure you’re both on the same page. Finally, tell them you’d like to think about it and get back to them. In your follow-up, explain clearly why you disagree or why making a change won’t be possible. The other person might end up agreeing with you, seeing a hole in your logic you hadn’t considered, or they’ll stand by their comments. In any case, they’ll see that you took the time to engage with their criticism instead of writing it off.

Soliciting Feedback

In Radical Candor, Kim Scott asserts that, when your employees see you react well to criticism, you will naturally gain their trust and respect. You can jumpstart this process by asking your team to provide you with radically candid guidance and then responding in a trustworthy manner. There are three steps to effectively soliciting criticism and pushing your conversations in a productive direction.

Step #1: Request Public Criticism

As the boss, you must be willing to be publicly criticized. By doing so, you demonstrate that there’s value in criticism and that its intent is to make everyone better. Responding well to criticism establishes you as a strong leader who isn’t afraid to make mistakes and is open to learning. Also, public criticism allows you to get everyone’s feedback as efficiently as possible.  Scott recommends that, to get things started, find a team member who seems comfortable giving you feedback and ask them to offer some criticism or disagreement at the next staff meeting.

Similarly, in No Rules Rules, Erin Meyer and Netflix CEO Reed Hastings recommend making it easier for employees to give you feedback by including feedback as an agenda item in meetings, although their advice is to do this in one-on-one meetings.

Step #2: Ask Constructive Questions

Asking questions can provide a jumping-off point for coming up with issues that need addressing and helps cut through the discomfort of offering criticism. Helpful questions include “How can I better support you?” and “What is something I’m doing that you find frustrating?”

As another option, Marshall Goldsmith (What Got You Here Won’t Get You There) recommends that you distribute a questionnaire in which your colleagues score you on how well you fulfill certain criteria. For instance, how good of a listener you are or how good you are at sharing information with people. Consistent scores should highlight your “problem areas.”

No matter which approach you take to soliciting feedback, Goldsmith says, make sure that your questions specifically ask for comments on your behavior, not simply people’s opinions of you as a person. Don’t ask general questions such as “What do you like and dislike about me?” or “How do you feel about me?”

Step #3: Push Through Discomfort to Get Answers

Kim Scott explains that hesitation and silence don’t indicate an absence of issues. They indicate that you’ll have to keep pushing to get sincere feedback. There are several ways to accomplish this:

  • Create silence: Count to six after asking for criticism. Your employee may be more uncomfortable with silence than with criticizing you and will say what’s on their mind to fill the space. 
  • Keep asking: Keep insisting that they come up with something. You could say, “You’re usually great at pinpointing improvements that need to be made, so I’m sure you have valuable feedback on how I can improve.” 
  • Notice body language: If someone says they have no criticism, but their body language clearly says otherwise, bring it to their attention. You could say, “You’re agreeing with me, but your face is tense and your arms are crossed. Tell me what’s really on your mind!”

Don’t be a bully about pushing for answers, however. If your employees really can’t think of any criticism, ask them to think about it and schedule a follow-up meeting to discuss it.

Incorporating Feedback

Thanks for the Feedback discusses what you do with feedback and how you can incorporate it into your life individually and in your organization.

Incorporating Feedback at an Individual Level

There are five techniques that can help you find specific ways to incorporate feedback into your life:

  1. Focus on one thing: Sometimes feedback has several strands and encompasses a wide area. Focus on just one specific aspect of it first.
  2. Look for options: Make sure you understand the other person’s true concerns and determine what your options are for addressing them. 
  3. Test with small experiments: Try out advice on a small scale before committing to a larger change. 
  4. Get properly motivated: Increase the benefits of positive changes by adding rewards. Increase the costs of not changing by adding more consequences. Keep in mind that, when making changes, things will get harder before they get easier.  
  5. Make the other person feel valued: Be open to their advice, and they will likely be open to your advice. 

Incorporating Feedback at an Organizational Level

We’ll now discuss how your organization can improve its feedback system by examining three perspectives: senior leadership and HR, team leaders and coaches, and receivers.

Senior Leadership and HR

As the most visible players, a company’s leadership and HR are expected to spearhead performance management systems. There are some things you can do to help ensure success in that process:

  • Promote a culture of learning: Talk to your employees about the benefits of a growth mentality and how it improves performance. Discuss feedback-receiving methods. 
  • Explain tradeoffs as well as benefits: Promote the benefits of any new evaluation system but also address possible shortcomings. This will help employees know what to expect. 
  • Set an example: Actively seek out feedback from those below you. 

Team Leaders and Coaches

Improve your team’s feedback skills by modeling your own system, emphasizing the tradeoff between short-term pain and long-term gain, and being aware of individual differences among your teammates that affect how each reacts to feedback.


The most important thing to remember is that, as a receiver of effective feedback in the workplace, you drive the process and control your own learning. Be proactive—seek out advice from those who can help you. Observe successful people, and try to figure out what they’re doing differently. Be open, try out advice, and communicate clearly. 

In the end, although learning is a shared experience, your own individual progress is up to you.

Feedback in Other Cultures

In No Rules Rules, Reed Hastings and Erin Meyer write that you should keep in mind that colleagues from other cultures may have different attitudes toward frankness. Discuss and explore these cultural differences. Adapt to giving and receiving feedback that is more (or less) candid than you’re typically comfortable with. This might mean softening your negative feedback by refraining from placing blame and by framing the critique as a suggestion.

Erin Meyer outlines some general principles for cross-cultural feedback in The Culture Map

  • Explain how you normally deliver feedback in your culture. 
  • Don’t try to mimic the other culture because you risk offending the other person. 
  • If you’re used to receiving indirect negative feedback, learn to view direct feedback as a sign that the other person respects you enough to be honest with you.
  • If you’re used to giving indirect negative feedback and find yourself in a more direct culture, be explicit about both positive and negative comments, but make sure that you keep the amount of both types of feedback balanced over time.
  • If you’re used to giving direct feedback, one way to adjust to indirect cultures is by not mentioning the negative at all. Instead, praise only the positives; employees can infer what’s not being addressed directly.

Wrapping Up

Effective feedback in the workplace brings out the best in individuals and, ultimately, the whole organization. Think about how you might incorporate these principles and practices to foster a culture of feedback in your workplace. Whatever your role, you have a part to play.

The Ultimate Guide to Effective Feedback in the Workplace

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Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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