10.4 Giving and Receiving Feedback


Performing work of a high quality is vital not only to your success in any profession but to the success of your team and company. How do you know if the quality of your work is meeting client, manager, co-worker, and other stakeholder expectations? Feedback. Whether this comes as a formal evaluation or informal comments, they’ll tell you whether you’re doing a great job, merely a good one, satisfactory, or a poor one that needs improving because their success depends on the quality of work you do. Poor leadership will merely point out what you’re doing wrong, which is negative feedback or mere criticism, and tell you to fix it without being much help. Good leadership may start with negative feedback and then tell you what you must do to improve. Inspiring leadership skips the negative criticism altogether and surrounds the constructive criticism with praise to effectively boost morale and motivate the worker to seek more praise. This is leading by carrot rather than stick.

Constructive criticism differs from mere negative criticism in that it is focused on improvement with clear, specific instructions for what exactly the receiver must do to meet expectations. If you merely wanted to criticize a report, for instance, you could say it’s terribly written and demand that it be fixed, leaving the writer to figure it out. Of course, if they don’t know what the expectations are, attempts at fixing it may result in yet more disappointment.

If you were offering constructive criticism, however, you would give the writer specific direction on how to improve. You might encourage them to revise and proofread it, perhaps taking advantage of MS Word’s spell checker and grammar checker, as well as perhaps some specific writing-guide review for recurring errors and the help of a second pair of eyes. You may even offer to help yourself by going through a part of the report, pointing out how to fix certain errors, and thus guiding the writer to correct similar errors throughout. Of course, you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make them drink; if all of these efforts fail to motivate the employee to do better, switching to a more strict, threat-based style of leadership may get the necessary results. Most people don’t like being criticized, and yet sometimes negative feedback is necessary if being too nice doesn’t work. For best results at the outset, however, always start with well-organized constructive criticism.

Giving Constructive Criticism: The Sandwich Method

As miscommunication, vague and misleading instruction will lead to little-to-no improvement or even more damage from people acting on misunderstandings caused by poor direction. Not only must the content of constructive criticism be of a high quality itself, but its packaging must be such that it properly motivates the receiver. An effective way of delivering constructive criticism is called using the sandwich method. Like sugar-coating bitter medicine, the idea here is to make the receiver feel good about themselves so that they’re in a receptive frame of mind for hearing, processing, and remembering the constructive criticism. If the constructive criticism is focused on improvement and the receiver associates it with the praise that comes before and after (the slices of bread), the purely positive phrasing motivates them to actually improve. The three parts of this feedback are shown in Table 10.36

Table 10.6 Three Parts of Feedback

Feedback Example
1. Sincere, specific praise Your report really impressed me with its organization and visually appealing presentation of your findings. It’s almost perfect.
2. Constructive criticism If there’s anything that you can improve before you send it on to the head office, it’s the writing. Use MS Word’s spellchecker and grammar checker, which will catch most of the errors. Perhaps you could also get Marieke to check it out because she’s got an eagle eye for that sort of thing. The cleaner the writing is, the more the execs will see it as a credible piece worth considering.
3. Sincere, specific praise Otherwise, the report is really great. The abstract is right on point, and the evidence you’ve pulled together makes a really convincing case for investing in blockchain. I totally buy your conclusion that it’ll be the future of financial infrastructure.
Source: Communication at Work by Jordan Smith, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

Of course, this style of feedback may develop a bad reputation if done poorly, such as giving vague, weak praise (called “damning with faint praise”) when more specific, stronger praise is possible. If done well, however, the sandwich tends to make those receiving it feel good about themselves even as they’re motivate to do better.

Sandwiching feedback can be challenging, however, if the receiver hasn’t done enough praiseworthy work to get two pieces of bread together. In such cases, you can always reach for something to flatter them with (“I like your hair today, but . . . ”) in an attempt to put them at ease, then carefully word the constructive criticism so that it doesn’t put the receiver down. After all, the entire point of the  sandwich is to make the constructive criticism more palatable by keeping it positive with feel-good sentiment.

The ability to give and receive feedback is integral to a healthy working relationship. Feedback is intended to provide information and observations about an individual’s work behaviour or performance and can be positive and/or negative. All too often feedback is perceived as negative and associated with criticism. However, if given in the right way and at the right time, feedback can be highly beneficial for both the giver and the receiver.

Let’s Focus: Guidelines for Giving Effective Feedback

The following are general guidelines on how to give feedback:

  • Relax and take a few deep breaths if you are anxious.
  • Remain respectful and calm at all times. If you are angry or unable to control your emotions, wait until you have calmed down.
  • Remember that feedback is both positive and negative. Make sure the information you convey does not focus only on only one or the other.
  • Provide the feedback in an appropriate location. Negative feedback should be given in private space without interruption. Providing negative feedback in front of others is inappropriate.
  • Put your feedback into context, particularly if it is negative. This will help the receiver understand the points you are making. If you notice that the receiver is distressed, slow down, take a short break, or reschedule the discussion if necessary.
  • Allow the receiver the opportunity to answer or ask questions and provide their own input. This will require active listening on the part of the giver.
  • Focus on the issues and not the person. Giving constructive criticism is important but should never be made to feel personal.  It is important to recognize that even though you are not intending on making the feedback personal that some people will still take it that way.  You should be prepared to address this, as conflict may arise from this miscommunication.
  • Provide feedback at the appropriate time so that an employee or co-worker can address the issues. Don’t stockpile the feedback or criticism and unload it void of context. It is far better to address issues as they occur so that frustrations cannot build, and memories are fresh.
  • Make sure that it is within your purview to provide the feedback.
  • Ensure that you are not only giving negative feedback. While it is necessary to give constructive criticism, it is also important to recognize the positive accomplishments of others.  If you are consistently giving negative feedback and never give positive feedback it can be hard for others to know whether you believe they are successful.
  • Acknowledging the accomplishments of others when appropriate lets them know they are a valuable member of the team.


Don’t forget, you can also give yourself feedback. Self-evaluation can be difficult, because people may think their performance was effective and therefore doesn’t need critique, or they may become their own worst critic, which can negatively affect self-efficacy. The key to effective self-evaluation is to identify strengths and weaknesses, to evaluate yourself within the context of the task, and to set concrete goals for future performance. Here are some guidelines for student self-evaluation for presentations.

  • Identify strengths and weaknesses. We have a tendency to be our own worst critics, so steer away from nit-picking or over focusing on one aspect of your performance that really annoys you and sticks out to you. It is likely that the focus of your criticism wasn’t nearly as noticeable or even noticed at all by others.
  • Evaluate yourself within a context. People have a tendency to overanalyze certain aspects of their performance, which usually only accounts for a portion of their overall effectiveness or productiveness, and under analyze other elements that have significant importance.
  • Set goals for next time. Goal setting is important because most of us need a concrete benchmark against which to evaluate our progress. Once goals are achieved, they can be “checked off” and added to our ongoing skill set, which can enhance confidence and lead to the achievement of more advanced goals.
  • Revisit goals and assess progress at regular intervals. We will not always achieve the goals we set, so it is important to revisit the goals periodically to assess our progress. If you did not meet a goal, figure out why and create an action plan to try again. If you did achieve a goal, try to build on that confidence to meet future goals.

Receiving Constructive Criticism

No one’s perfect, not even you, so your professional success depends on people telling you how to improve your performance. When you receive well-phrased constructive criticism, accept it in good faith as a gift because that’s what it is. If a close friend or colleague nicely tells you to pick out the broccoli between your teeth after lunching with them, they’re doing you the favour of telling you what you don’t know but need to in order to be successful or at least avoid failure. Your enemies, on the other hand, would say nothing, letting you go about your day embarrassing yourself in the hopes that it will contribute to your failure. Constructive criticism is an act of benevolence or mercy meant to improve not only your performance but also that of the team and company as a whole. Done well, constructive criticism is a quality assurance task rather than a personal attack. Be grateful and say thank you when someone is nice enough to look out for your best interests that way.

Receiving constructive criticism gracefully may mean stifling your defensive reflex. Important skills not only in the workplace but in basic communication include being a good listener and being able to take direction. Employees who can’t take direction well soon find themselves out of job because it puts them at odds with the goals of the team and company. Good listening means stifling the defensive reflex in your head before it gets out and has you rudely interrupting the speaker. Even if you begin mounting defenses in your head, you’re not effectively listening to the constructive criticism.

Receiving constructive criticism in a way that assures the speaker that you understand involves completing the communication process. You can indicate that you’re listening first with your nonverbals:

  • Maintaining eye contact shows that you’re paying close attention to the speaker’s words and nonverbal inflections
  • Nodding your head shows that you’re processing and understanding the information coming in, as well as agreeing
  • Taking notes shows that you’re committing to the information by reviewing it later

Once you understand the constructive criticism, paraphrase it aloud to confirm your understanding. “So you’re basically saying that I should be doing X instead of Y, right?” If the speaker confirms your understanding, follow up by explaining how you’re going to implement the advice to assure them that their efforts in speaking to you won’t be in vain. Apologizing may even be necessary if you were clearly in the wrong.

Of course, if the constructive criticism isn’t so constructive—if it’s mere criticism, you would be right to ask for more help and specific direction. If the criticism is just plain wrong, perhaps there’s been a mistake or miscommunication. When disagreeing, focus on the faulty points rather than on your feelings even if you’ve taken the feedback as a personal insult. Always maintain professionalism throughout such exchanges.

Guidelines for Receiving Feedback

The following are general guidelines on how to receive feedback:

  • Relax and take a few deep breaths if you are anxious.
  • Actively listen to what is being said. Ask questions or for clarification if required at the appropriate time.
  • Remain respectful at all times. If you are angry or unable to control your emotions, wait until you are calm to respond or ask questions.
  • Remember that feedback is both positive and negative. Acknowledge the feedback by paraphrasing it and asking for clarification on any points if necessary.
  • Take responsibility for your role. Acknowledge any errors you have made or situations that could have been handled better. Ask for advice on how to handle these situations better in the future.
    If you disagree with the assessment, be assertive, not aggressive. Clearly address the issues.


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Conflict Management Copyright © 2022 by Laura Westmaas, BA, MSc is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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