Do You Avoid Giving Feedback? Here’s a Formula that Works

feedback-that-landsFor many people, just hearing the phrase “I’d like to give you some feedback” triggers a flight or fight response. They’re on high alert before you even start the conversation.

This conversation can be just as difficult for the person delivering the feedback. I’ve seen people go to incredible lengths to avoid delivering what they fear might be perceived as negative feedback. By putting the encounter off, the situation invariably gets worse.

Even the best managers and leaders stumble when giving feedback precisely because of the sensitive nature of this dynamic. Very few people have learned how to give feedback effectively. When you know how to convey constructive feedback that works, it’s a game-changer for everyone. The person hearing the feedback walks away feeling energized and more focused; the person delivering the feedback has taken an essential step to keep a team member or project on track.

Nine times out of ten, the goal when you’re giving someone constructive feedback is to change their behavior in some way. You want them to stop doing something, or do something differently, or do yet another thing entirely.

To effect that change, it’s critical to deliver feedback that sticks. Nothing blocks the effectiveness of feedback faster than a negative approach.

When these critical conversations focus on the negative, the person hearing the feedback can start to shut down. They quite literally have trouble taking in what you’re saying. So how can you break the negative feedback cycle? Reframe the conversation. Remove negative emotion from the feedback you’re delivering and make it actionable.

Here’s the formula I use. It’s simple, effective and can be used in any situation. When I sit down with someone to provide feedback, this is my opening: “Here’s what I see that is working…” Right off the bat, I’m sharing positive input on the person’s performance. Now they’re all ears. I talk about the behaviors and contributions that are having a positive impact on the team or organization.

Next statement: “Here’s what I’d like to see more of…” Using the phrase “see more of” reframes the criticism and makes it actionable. It’s not “stop doing that” but “do more of this.” You’re replacing the behavior you want to eliminate with a positive behavior the person can adopt instead. If this sounds suspiciously like child-rearing or animal-training, there’s a reason for that. These techniques are universal and they work!

Here’s a quick example. I was in a staff meeting with one of my CEO clients. He turned the floor over to his staff and asked them to provide recommendations on strategy for a critical project. At the end of the discussion, it was clear that the CEO had already decided what to do and wasn’t open to the ideas from the staff. He knew the path they needed to take. Needless to say, the participants in the meeting left deflated because they felt their contribution didn’t matter. They had been handed the baton only to have it snatched away.

Using old school tactics, I could have just laid it out and told him what I saw that wasn’t working. Chances are, that would not have created the outcome I desired, and could have resulted in a negative response.

Instead, here’s what I said. “You have a highly tuned understanding of this problem and as CEO, you needed to make the call about the strategy. In the future, I’d like to see you tell them right up front when you’re going to make the call, if you know that’s what you’re going to do. If you don’t know you’re going to make the call but during the course of the meeting you decide that’s what you need to do, I’d like to see you let them know that right away. Acknowledge their input and thank them for their contribution.” He got it immediately and was able to put that feedback into action during the next critical meeting.

I’ve worked with groups that consider this formula so effective that they’ve incorporated into their rules of engagement and use this specific phrasing for all types of feedback up and down the organization. Even with encounters that are typically contentious – think about those between engineering and marketing, for example – this approach can break the cycle of negativity and get everyone on a more productive path.

I observed an interaction between marketing and engineering teams regarding a missed product deadline that knocked my socks off. We have all experienced the domino effect that a missed product deadline can create. After hearing the news that there was a significant slip, I heard the marketing person calmly state, “You’ve given us a very clear update on the product. Thank you. What I’d like to see more of is advance notice so that we have time to plan for schedule delays and adjust our launch plans accordingly.” Bingo. That’s the start of a constructive conversation and more importantly, the path to behavior changes that will make everyone happier and more productive.

About the Author: Kate Purmal is a pathological optimist and accomplished visionary who brings out the brilliance in CEOs and founders she advises. She has over 15 years of experience working as a CEO, COO and CFO to start-ups and privately held technology and life sciences companies. Kate previously served as a Senior Vice President at SanDisk and was on Palm Inc.’s founding management team. Kate regularly works with executives, leaders and their teams to initiate game-changing initiatives by launching Moonshots. She is co-author  with Lisa Goldman of The Moonshot Effect, Disrupting Business as Usual. Visit our website at

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