Feedback in the workplace - Getting it right

Feedback in the workplace - Getting it right

Providing clear, actionable, and direct feedback requires intentional effort to exert the intended effect on the receiver. Let's learn how!

Jul 11, 2022·

6 min read

Featured on Hashnode

Giving and receiving feedback is a crucial part of our current work culture. Ideally, when the feedback cycle comes around, teammates will give feedback (either publicly or anonymously) to their colleagues, managers would provide feedback to their ICs, team members would provide feedback to their managers and so on.

If you haven't been through this process yourself, it sounds like a worthwhile and very helpful process, and it is, but it can also be frightening and dreadful. This is because the line between constructive feedback and harassment/condescension is very thin. As a result of the latter, people often quit their jobs, even when it is coming from a well-meaning respondent.

So the question is how do we get it right? We can all agree that feedback, regardless of all the ways that it could go wrong, is still very good for us, it informs our actions, reveals where we need to improve or double down on, cheers us on our successes, and ultimately gives us a sense of direction.

Positive feedback isn't so hard to figure out. Almost everyone who's intentional and cares about giving positive feedback always manages to do it. Seriously, how hard can it be to say kind things to someone who has done a great job?

picture depicting a positive feedback

Finding out how to tell someone they didn't do well in a way that doesn't make them feel like a fraud, unappreciated, harrassed, and looked down upon is the hard part.

In my own experience, I have found the following approaches helpful in providing critical feedback:

Ask how they like to receive feedback

Different people like to receive feedback in different ways, so imposing a certain "company standard" way of doing things will be unfair to them. The same goes for general work and day-to-day responsibilities. Asking people the "how" question gives them the opportunity to inform and guide you on exactly how you should approach personal or sensitive matters when dealing with them.

I used to work at Netlify, where the people team had a form that asked every new employee that question and shared the answers with everyone else. This was a clever way to inform everyone that "Hey, we have a new team member and this is how they like to receive feedback". Some popular responses were:

  • I like it written and shared with me privately
  • You could text me on Slack or email if it's very sensitive
  • I like it to be direct and straight to the point
  • I prefer actionable feedback with a path forward and so on.

It is difficult to hurt anyone's feelings if you meet them where and how they want to be met. However, this is only the first step in the right direction. Knowing how they like to receive feedback is helpful, sticking to it is amazing and what is even more rewarding is the content of your feedback. Let's look at how you can improve that.

First, recognize and applaud their wins

picture of an applauding hand

There's always something they did well. Look closely and you will also notice the things that they spent a great deal of time working on, even if they didn't succeed, appreciate and recognize their efforts.

For the things they did well, being their loudest cheerleader does wonders for their morale and confidence. Even better if you could tell them how impactful their work is. Share how their work helped the team or the company achieve its business goals or how they contributed to revenue growth.

Furthermore, this shouldn't have to wait for the feedback cycle to come around, or for the employee to accomplish a major thing. A culture of appreciation, especially for the little things has an incredible effect on the energy, mood and overall psyche of employees. Use occasional words of encouragement like:

Your cheerful attitude towards work makes it easy for the rest of the team to work together and accomplish more things, thank you for bringing your energy and spreading good vibes across the team

If you need more on this, feel free to check through this resource

Be clear, actionable and direct

In a bid to "explain", we tend to overshare and complicate our feedback such that the message gets lost in other unnecessary detail. You should instead provide very specific feedback that doesn't raise more questions than it answers. Good feedback should at the very least provide 3 things:

  • Clarity - The receiver understands without a doubt what the feedback is about.
  • Action item(s) - It should inform the receiver what they can do better next time.
  • Direction - Tell the employee exactly how he or she is doing.

We can all agree that critical feedback can create a stressful atmosphere for everyone. However, phrasing it the right way (clear, actionable, and direct) can make it so much easier to deliver and digest.

Be kind with your feedback

Feedback is not helpful if it leaves the receiver feeling attacked, harassed or insulted. I've seen people say: "but how do I communicate clearly that they need to do better while trying to water down my words". That is the mindset that has led many good hires to quit their jobs. For every mean sentence, there's a kind version that passes the same message, just without sounding mean. Here's an example, you want to tell an employee that they underperformed on a partnership project that led to the loss of a client.

❌ "As feedback, I'd like to let you know that your poor performance on the partnership project resulted in the loss of a client that would've otherwise improved our metrics on client acquisition and added to revenue growth, we didn't appreciate it and are hoping that you do better on the next one".

This feedback albeit clear and direct will do more harm than good. It undermines the efforts of the employee and concentrates on the negative impacts of their performance almost as if the entire feedback is designed to antagonise the employee as opposed to encouraging them to perform better. The result is that this employee will feel like a fraud, undervalued, unappreciated and will possibly struggle with low self-esteem.

Kind feedback would look like this -

✅ "Thank you so much for all the amazing work you did this month/week/quarter, your efforts on the XYZ projects did not go unnoticed. Because of it, we achieved ABC things and it has helped the company in XYZ ways. You also put a lot of effort into that partnership project that didn't end up a success, which meant that we didn't onboard the client as we had hoped. For the next one, we'd like you to try a new approach, use XYZ tools instead, and drop any other thing on your plate so you can focus more on it".

This feedback sends the same message but in a more palatable and kind manner that leaves the receiver feeling happy about their accomplishments while also providing guidance on how to improve where they lacked.


In conclusion, this is not an exhaustive list of the things you can do to give better feedback, however, it can set you on the right path. Feel free to research more on this to help make the workplace safer and more accommodating for everyone. If you have other thoughts and ideas, please share with us in the comments.