How to Give Feedback the Right Way

Giving feedback is hard – sometimes we don’t even know how to give positive feedback in the right way, and it becomes even harder with remote team members. In The Feedback Fallacy, Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall tell us how we’ve been doing it wrong.

It’s a sad fact that startups fail at a stupendous rate. It’s around 90 percent overall. Lots of things drive those failures and range from underfunding to poor marketing.

Do you know what else can drive a startup under? Losing good people. One of the simplest ways of losing good people is with poorly delivered employee feedback.

Delivered well, feedback can prompt more productivity and better results. Delivered poorly, you can alienate otherwise good employees. Do you know how to give feedback?

If you’re not sure, keep reading for some tips on offering feedback that gets results.

Get Specific

Ever heard of something called SMART goals? SMART is a goal-setting approach and it starts with, you guessed it, set specific goals. Take the same approach with feedback in a startup.

Startups always have a million things going on, which makes generalized feedback almost meaningless. Let’s say that you tell an employee they should focus more on the details.

Unless you talked with that employee previously, several times, about that lack of detail focus in a specific area, odds are good they won’t know what you mean.

Instead, say something like: “I need you to take more time checking in orders to ensure we get everything on the invoice.”

Don’t Focus On Your Way

Far too often, feedback turns into a case of a supervisor criticizing the fact that an employee doesn’t do things the exact way the supervisor would. If you’re working with hazardous chemicals, that process might matter a lot. In most cases, though, it’s just a difference in style.

Before you criticize an approach, really look at it. If you don’t understand it, ask why they do it that way. If you have a problem with the results, then sit down and talk with them about modifying their approach.

Don’t Wait

The corporate approach of waiting months before taking someone to task is utterly futile. If someone makes a mistake, you must address it quickly. Preferably, you’ll do it within twenty-four hours so the employee associates the feedback with the behavior.

The same goes for offering positive feedback. If you see an employee do something that you want to reinforce, do it now. The same reasoning applies.

If you wait, the praise or criticism is so distant from the actual behavior that your employees won’t associate the two things. Immediacy creates the right emotional links in memory.

How to Give Feedback? Specific, Thoughtful, Prompt

The question of how to give feedback that makes a difference starts with specificity. The vaguer you are in your feedback, the less meaningful it becomes. It’s just another version of “be nice.”

Your feedback shouldn’t boil down to, “Do it the way I do it,” unless compelling reasons exist.

The feedback also shouldn’t come months after the fact. For the most impact, feedback should happen as soon after the behavior as possible.


  • it’s easier to say ‘stop doing that’ instead of looking for strengths: ‘keep doing this’
  • sometimes we think we’re giving good feedback but in reality we’re saying “do it my way” when we should be saying “do it your way; here is where I think your way was working, and here’s where you lost me”
  • it’s really difficult to standardize what “excellence” looks like in different people. The best sports coaches record the winning plays in each game and say “this is what excellence looks like for you
  • There’s only 3 sources of input that are valuable to a team member: facts, steps, reaction.
    • Facts — if a person doesn’t know them, tell them.
    • Steps — if a job is defined by a few set steps and they miss one, tell them.
    • Reaction — your legit reaction “Look, my reaction to what you just did is I didn’t follow, I didn’t understand it”; “I’m confused and not convinced by the sales pitch”. You’re not telling someone they’re not strategic enough, you’re giving your honest reaction.
  • What managers should stop saying is “can I give you some feedback?” And they should start saying “here’s my reaction.” The most powerful thing you can do is give your reaction to what works.

You can go more in depth by listening to the podcast episode, What Managers Get Wrong About Feedback.

Looking for other ways you can adapt or improve your startup culture? Check out our post on improving startup culture.

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