How to give constructive feedback

There’s no way around it. Giving feedback is a tricky thing. Even with the best of intentions, wires get crossed, and technology isn’t always a help. There are more ways to experience confusion than ever before. Texts, emails, video calls and even instant messaging apps are part of the problem.

The golden rule for anyone delivering feedback is to do it in person. Facial expressions inform us on the intent behind the words, and when we are delivering a message on a potentially sensitive topic, being physically present makes all the difference. Non-verbal cues can reinforce the tone of our words and body language is essential to understanding the meaning of anyone’s message.

Peer-to-peer feedback

With coworker relationships, it’s important to get things right so as not to compromise trust. Here are a few basic things to remember when providing peer feedback. The first is permission. As a peer (and not a manager) ensure this person is comfortable with you offering an opinion or critique. Beware of giving unsolicited advice.

If the working relationship requires iterative feedback on a project, ensure the person is receiving it at the appropriate stages, and not continuously, as this can cause disruption of their work flow.

Don’t be afraid to ask your peer: “How do you prefer receiving feedback? Do you want to meet about it? Should I give you a list of suggestions? Is it better to notify you over email?”

Everyone is different, and some are more sensitive to confrontation than others. Avoid triggering land mines by being prepared ahead of time.

Above all else, avoid the tone of a critic. Tone is everything. It’s the difference between a compliment and a sarcastic remark, and when you’re giving feedback, always aim for direct but non-confrontational.

Keep word choice positive and unassuming. Focus on the issue and how to fix it rather than the person or their perceived shortcomings. There is absolutely no help in making things personal.

Executive-to-direct-report feedback

Before ever beginning the conversation, management should remove any potential for ego to slip through the cracks of the feedback. Make delivery of feedback honest, but as smooth as possible to receive. If all else fails, think of how you would prefer to hear the same words about you, but from someone else.

Offering feedback to direct reports is a privilege, not a right, and should be treated as such. If this feedback opportunity is leveraged for anything other than constructive criticism, the direct report will sense it and withdraw their trust, and potentially, their productivity. There is nothing more demotivating for an employee than disrespect from a superior.

Before delivering any kind of feedback, think about the appropriate context. Public delivery of any kind of criticism, constructive or otherwise, is always a bad idea. Never deliver feedback in a public setting or in front of other coworkers.

Take the conversation to a private context out of respect for the direct report and their work. And don’t forget to highlight achievements! Feedback shouldn’t always be a negative experience. Include what a direct report is doing well to diffuse tension, and spend time on it instead of throwing it in at the end of the conversation as a buffer. Genuine recognition for hard work goes a long way.

Employee-to-manager feedback

Equal amounts of trust and respect are required to deliver constructive feedback from an employee to a manager or leader. This feedback is usually initiated by the manager in a performance review or other quarterly progress evaluation. Don’t forget that managers have the same sensitivities as employees when it comes to feedback, so be aware of delivery, limiting it to a private context, and at the appropriate time.

It’s often helpful to go into an annual review meeting with notes to guide your talking points. This is not a time to wing it! Choose your words carefully, with intention and kindness, even while suggesting potential areas of strain or frustration. Ask for them to specify the type of feedback they are seeking. Is it overall, performance-related questions, or something specific to a project?

If there is a harsher criticism or more sensitive issue that feels uncomfortable to address with your manager, consider giving that feedback to human resources. It will alleviate the tension of the working relationship and potential for it to cause problems in the future.

While giving good feedback might feel vulnerable at times, it is an essential part of working on a team and ensuring workplace relationships stay conflict-free. Embrace the opportunity to improve as an individual, and share how others can grow.

Lauren Ruef is a research analysts at She has six years of experience in the technology and B2B payments industries.

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