How to Give Amazing Feedback at Work

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform summary of "Emotional Intelligence" by Daniel Goleman. Shortform has the world's best summaries of books you should be reading.

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Criticism, or feedback, is one of the major workplace areas that we need emotional intelligence.

People need feedback to do their jobs better and keep their work on track. Like cogs in a clock, every part of a system needs to be running at its best to keep the whole system going; in a workplace, people are the cogs, and everyone needs feedback to improve their performance for the sake of the whole.

How do you give feedback and constructive criticism? To your boss, and to employees?

When people don’t get feedback, they’re in the dark: they don’t know how their boss or their peers feel about their work, they don’t know exactly what’s expected of them and whether they’re meeting those expectations, and if there are any issues with their performance, they’re left to get worse as time goes on.

Managers must be good at both giving feedback and receiving it. It makes a difference in how successful a workplace is. The better you are at giving feedback and receiving it yourself, the more satisfied and more productive your employees will be. Feedback should be used to motivate your employees to do better.

  • One study of managers and white-collar workers found that inept criticism was the biggest cause of conflict at a job, ahead of distrust, personality clashes, and disagreements over pay or position.

When Giving Feedback Goes Wrong

If you want to give good feedback, here are things to avoid:

  • Expressing criticism as personal attacks. Personal attacks can’t be acted on, they can only serve to upset the person suffering them. As we discussed in the previous section, personal attacks lead to defensiveness, stonewalling, and emotional hijacking.
  • Making negative blanket statements. “You messed up” is not feedback by itself. It does not communicate how someone messed up, why it’s important not to mess up this way, and what the person can do differently to not mess up next time. Feedback is about giving your employees actionable things to work on, not about demeaning them or punishing them for doing something wrong.
  • Using anger. Giving criticism from a place of anger starts a vicious cycle wherein the manager angrily attacks the employee, the employee gets defensive or stonewalls, and then the manager gets annoyed with the employee for responding that way, which leads to more criticism and anger, which leads to more defensiveness and stonewalling, on and on until the employee quits or gets fired.

Mishandling feedback can demoralize employees, causing them to refuse to cooperate or avoid managers altogether.

Some managers delay giving feedback for long periods of time. This is counterproductive: employees don’t suddenly develop problems in their performance, usually the problems develop over time. Managers have to use feedback proactively–they can’t let criticism come only when things are at their breaking point. When feedback is given earlier, the employee has more time to fix the issue and can catch it before it gets worse. 

Also, managers are human, too: when managers let criticisms build up in their minds, they usually end up giving criticism in the least helpful way, as a long list of personal attacks on the employee that have been festering over time.

Some managers only give criticism, and this, too, can be bad for morale. Praise and criticism should be balanced: letting employees know what they’re doing well reinforces good habits and keeps their spirits lifted. A healthy balance of praise and criticism lets the praise motivate employees to fix the criticisms.

How to Give Feedback Right

Here’s how to give good feedback:

  • Give praise first. Tell your employees what they do well first, and be specific. This will make them more receptive to your criticism and will boost their spirits at the outset.
  • Keep it specific. If you can, pick one specific example that summarizes what you’d like them to change. Breakdown what they did that was successful and what they did that was not successful.
  • Offer solutions. Presumably, if you’re giving them feedback, it’s because you have an idea of how it should be different–so include ways they might fix the problem. They might come up with other ways to fix the problem after receiving your criticism, but you should point them in the direction of a solution or a couple solutions that they can try.
  • Do it face to face, if possible, and be present. Written communication is impersonal and can be misinterpreted (since it lacks the 90% of the communication that nonverbal cues would make up). Don’t make giving feedback easier on yourself by doing it via an email or memo–criticism is most effective privately and in person.
  • Use empathy. Managers without empathy are far more likely to give feedback that does not improve the performance of their employees. The better you understand your employees and are attuned to what they’re experiencing emotionally, the better you’ll be able to identify the issues they’re having and help them figure out a solution.
How to Give Amazing Feedback at Work

Allen Cheng

Allen Cheng is the founder of Shortform. He has a passion for non-fiction books (having read 200+ and counting) and is on a mission to make the world's best ideas more accessible to everyone. He reads broadly, covering a wide range of subjects including finance, management, health, and society. Allen graduated from Harvard University summa cum laude and attended medical training at the MD/PhD program at Harvard and MIT. Before Shortform, he co-founded PrepScholar, an online education company.

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