June 10, 2020

Why most leaders suck at giving useful feedback and how you can

By Kevin Watson

Building on the guidance provided in my book review of Radical Candor, let’s explore further the challenge of giving feedback.

As well as useful advice from books I want to bring you the learned experience of leaders, through our panel of guest bloggers. So, I’m pleased that Kevin Watson stepped forward with his reflections on giving feedback in a way that works.

Readers of this blog may recall that Kevin is an experienced leadership coach & lecturer. He has shared with us before on topics including ‘being rather than doing’ leadership, managing virtual teams & not dwelling on failure. I also shared how much I enjoyed his workshop at this year’s Welsh Coaching Conference.

One of the reasons I want to share Kevin’s perspective is that it’s slightly different from Kim Scott’s approach. But you will spot that both are grounded in caring personally & the need to practice on yourself first.

So, over to Kevin to remind us why most leaders suck at giving feedback, plus what we can do to improve…

Let’s be honest, we’re really not that good at feedback, are we?

We tend to give feedback by reflex, often using outdated models we’ve taken from significant people in our lives.

Broadly speaking, people fall into three categories when giving feedback:


Never happy, always finding something to complain about, hard on people. Generally believes that you have to keep on top of people to get results.


Wants to be mates, likes to entertain and have a laugh. Feedback is likely to be vague and useless.


Never say that much, expect people to get on with it. Believes that giving people a salary is feedback enough.

The problem with the feedback sandwich

Then there are some people who’ve been taught the infamous ‘feedback sandwich’. You know the one – say something nice, deliver criticism, say something nice.

I’ve heard praise described as the ‘bread’ with criticism described as the ‘meat’. Imagine what that says…that the criticism is the most important part! Well, here’s the news….the feedback sandwich simply doesn’t work.

It doesn’t work for two reasons:

  • people giving feedback will only pay small attention to the positive feedback;
  • because of this most people can hear the ‘but‘ coming a mile off.

What the sandwich implies is that feedback is for affecting a change in performance and the negative part is the most important.

How to Give Feedback that Works

First, you need to consider some home truths about feedback:

  • people are, most of the time, hungry for more love, affection, warmth and respect, particularly at work;
  • sincere appreciation is like an oasis in the desert, like giving water to a thirsty traveller.

Your success or not with feedback depends on how well you learn to give feedback to yourself. You’ll tend to treat others pretty much the way you treat yourself and so the place to start is with the way you talk to yourself, about yourself and about your own results.

Learning to give yourself meaningful, helpful feedback is the single most important change you can make to how you manage others.

Say it the way you want it! Remember, your brain can’t distinguish don’t and do as it is only drawn to positive things.

Try it out for yourself:

  • When someone says to you “don’t think of a purple frog!” what hops into your mind?
  • With feedback, you need to say it the way you want it – “think of a red frog“.

How to Use the Feedback Properly

Be Timely

Ideally, give feedback within five minutes. People find it easier to both confirm good performance and change current performance while events are recent.

Be Specific

Start with three or four behaviours, praising, appreciating or drawing attention to them by being specific, e.g:

  • “I thought the way you explained that by using your story was really helpful”, or
  • “I noticed you listening carefully to that customer explaining her problem and I was impressed, well done”.

This is the most important part of the feedback because you are drawing attention to stuff that you want them to do more of. Make it pleasurable for them to do more of it.

Shine a Light

Highlight a single specific behaviour that would make it even better next time, e.g. “You could be even better next time if you remembered to write down their phone number and repeat it back to them as they told you”.

Finish on a High

This time make the comment about their identity, NOT their behaviour, e.g.
You’re a good salesman and I really value having you on my team”.

Notice that this way of providing feedback is about recognising positive behaviours and keeping the focus firmly on future performance. This avoids the kind of post-mortem feedback that bedevils so many performance reviews.

Your call to action

The way to get really good at giving feedback is to practice, practice, practice! And the best person to start practising on…is yourself.

So, practise using this feedback model by first taking just 10 minutes at the end of the day to reflect, journal, meditate or just think about how you did that day.

Thanks again, Kevin, for sharing that with us. I certainly find the end of day reflections are useful. Much of what you shared above also reminded me of the power of Marshall Goldsmith’s FeedForward approach. So, readers might like to check that out too.

There is much practical wisdom in what Kevin shares, however, my experience tells me you do also need to be able to have more challenging conversations. More in line with the HHIIPP framework from Kim Scott.

What do you think? I’d love to hear your views on the balance between Kevin’s approach and more direct challenging. Please share comments below or reply on social media.