Isabel Thottam

by Isabel Thottam

Have you ever worked with an employee who loved hearing the words, “Can I give you some feedback?” It’s a sentence dreaded throughout the hierarchy of any modern institution, regardless if you are the one giving or receiving the feedback in the scenario.

Why? Because feedback doesn’t work the way it should. 

Whether you disagree with a policy, the way your management handled an issue, or how your co-worker communicated with you about a project, there will always come a time when you don’t see eye to eye with someone you work with. Moreover, there will also be times when someone does not concur with how you handle a situation or communicate information.

It’s during these disagreements when our ability to give and receive constructive feedback is challenged. The key word here is constructive — it’s one thing to say you disagree with the approach or work ethic of a colleague, and a completely different method when specific recommendations are given.

In this article, we’ll look at how to give and receive constructive feedback. Covering the topics of managing people, assessment, and management and leadership, this piece will cover:

  • What is constructive feedback?
  • What are the most effective ways to deal with giving and receiving feedback?
  • How will learning to do both improve your leadership skills?

Section 1: What is constructive feedback?

The old way of managing an institution or company followed a “top-down” hierarchy in a command-and-control structure. Under this model, anyone who worked at the top level reported on and managed those who worked below them. Working with a direct manager meant you followed their instructions and the manager held you accountable. There was less creative freedom as most direction simply came from the top and cascaded downward. Feedback was simply reported as to whether or not something worked or if instructions were followed correctly.

In today’s working world, the institutional structure is quite different, and employees play more active and creative roles in how decisions are made and how work gets done. With less of a “top-down” hierarchy at play, giving feedback, from a management perspective, is not as simple as telling someone that they did something wrong or did not properly follow instructions. 

Since employees now have more independence, and different work ethics or styles, giving feedback also needs a new approach. There are two main ways people tend to give feedback.

Approach #1: Criticism

This is where the problem occurs for many leaders. If your approach to feedback is to simply point out what an employee did wrong, how it did not fit your vision, or how you would have done it differently, then you are not being constructive. When feedback is not constructive, it’s just criticism. The drawback here is that the feedback is too negative and therefore, not productive.

Approach #2: Constructive

For feedback to be constructive there has to be a two-way dialogue, meaning you have to listen and understand the other person’s perspective. Your feedback has to hold specific information based on your observations, and focus on creating positive change that moves forward. 

The drawback here is the struggle to cover things that were done incorrectly or poorly for fear of being too critical. The way to ensure you are being constructive, instead of overly critical, is to point out what went wrong and have an open conversation about it. The main difference between the two approaches is that one feels open for improvement, where the other simply gives a bad mark and closes the door.

In the next section, we’ll dive into specific examples on how to be effective when giving and receiving feedback to better showcase what constructive feedback is.


Section 2: What are the most effective ways to deal with giving and receiving feedback?

When feedback is given professionally, it’s constructive if you are being solution-oriented and positive. It’s a delicate situation because how you give and receive feedback can make or break your organization’s culture. This is why it’s increasingly important that you understand how to be effective with feedback. Here are some tips for being constructive when giving or receiving feedback.

Tip #1: Choose your wording wisely

To simply say, “You did this wrong,” or “This was a mistake,” is negative and critical. Instead, an approach from a more constructive position would sound more like, “Instead of doing this, what if we tried doing this,” or, “I like how you did x for y, but what do you think about trying x for z as well?”

Using this type of wording will lead to more discussion, as opposed to a simple listing of the pros and cons of someone’s work, which is not productive.

Tip #2: Engage in conversation

Whether you are the person receiving the feedback or giving it, you cannot just sit there and listen. You need to engage with each other and discuss why you did something a certain way, or why you disliked what the person did. It can be difficult to have these conversations, but it will help make the conversation more productive.

Additionally, voicing your opinion about why something didn’t work or the reasoning for why you thought a particular tactic would work better can help you understand each other’s work ethics and perspectives more. Engaging in such productive and difficult conversations will build better communication between you and your colleagues. 

Tip #3: Timing matters

For feedback to be the most effective, it needs to be given immediately. The longer you wait to give feedback, the less useful it becomes, and the more negative energy it creates in the office. If you wait days or weeks to give feedback, avoiding the issue will only lead to more problems. It also leaves the person thinking that they did a good job, so they may feel blindsided when you bring up your feedback later.

If you want to give feedback well, you need to learn to address issues immediately. If the feedback is related to a presentation or project that just finished, then the conversation needs to happen that day, or the next day if you need time to prepare for it. Regardless, feedback will not be very useful if you only give it during a monthly or quarterly performance review. It could feel redundant, but giving feedback daily keeps everyone on the same page.

Tip 4: Be positive, but also address the issue

It’s okay to be critical, especially if your employee or colleague made a mistake and needs to know they are doing something wrong. It’s just a matter of how you present the information and converse with your colleague, as noted in the first two tips, that will make or break your conversation. You should give your criticism, but you should also be sure to highlight what the person’s strong points are to avoid an overly critical approach.

Moreover, if you are the person receiving the feedback, it should be a red flag if you are only receiving positive feedback. No one is perfect; so don’t leave a feedback session without getting any tips or suggestions for how you can improve.

Tip #5: Always leave on a positive note

When you are finished giving feedback, it’s always a good rule of thumb to end on a positive note. This could be highlighting your favorite part of their presentation or mentioning what you think the person is doing really well. Or, you could simply point out how well you felt the conversation went and mention you appreciate how professional and constructive it had been. Either way, it’s good for both the giver and receiver to leave the room with positive motivation to make improvements and continue doing their best.

Section 3: How will learning to do both improve your leadership skills?

Learning how to give and receive feedback is a skill in itself, but once you master doing so, you inherently gain even more leadership skills. This is why it’s so important to focus on constructive feedback, as the overall gains are positive for everyone involved. 

Here are some examples of how your leadership skills will improve once you master feedback.

Communication skills get stronger

Conversations about feedback are a great time to work out any communication issues, and ask for clarification on anything you may have misunderstood. For feedback to be useful for both people, it needs to be a constructive conversation where both parties feel comfortable discussing what is not working. If you previously have not felt comfortable giving or receiving feedback, the more you do it, the more you will become comfortable having difficult conversations. This will enhance your leadership skills, as the best leaders are the ones who can communicate clearly, even when delivering difficult or negative news.

Feedback gives you motivation to improve

If you are the person receiving feedback, you should be open to constructive critique because knowing it will help you improve. If all you ever receive is positive feedback, then you’re either a perfect team member (and let’s face it, no one is perfect), or you have a manager with poor communication skills. If this is the case, ask for areas of improvement so you know what to work on. The more feedback you get, the better you can get at your job and any other skills you are learning and enhancing.

You become more efficient

Conversations related to feedback can help you become a more efficient leader. As the person giving feedback, it will help you learn to make better use of your time, especially during meetings. As the person receiving feedback, you’ll learn how to better spend your time, or what skills to focus on that will eventually help you become a more efficient worker.

Your vision and goals become stronger

Learning to give and receive feedback is difficult because it can often feel uncomfortable. But, one of the best outcomes from these conversations is that it leads to happier faculty and colleagues, and a stronger sense of the overall goals and mission of your institution. The more someone understands your vision and the role they play, the more they will enjoy both their job, and improving their work. 

Overall, if you want to give constructive feedback, you have to maintain the vision that you and those that you supervise (or you and your supervisor) are a team. If the team vision is lost, then it’s every person for themselves, so feedback will be more of a “blame game.” Feedback is constructive when both parties share the common goal for making positive improvements that work toward the larger picture.

About the author

Isabel Thottam is a freelance writer based in Seattle, WA. A graduate from Emerson College, Isabel has self-published two books, “The Labradoodle Who Lost His Doodle,” and “Joy Comes In The Morning.” She writes on the topics of career, technology, sustainable food, mental health and has been published in Fast Company, Glassdoor,, Fortune, Edible Seattle, Paste Magazine, and more. In addition to writing, Isabel works for a small, family orchard in Washington State selling fruit!

Works Cited

Lindsay, Nicole. “Taking Constructive Criticism Like a Champ.” The Muse

Seiter, Courtney. “The Art And Science Of Giving And Receiving Criticism At Work.” 9 December 2014. Fast Company. science-to-giving-and-receiving-criticism-at-work

Veerman, Elise. “How to give and receive constructive feedback.” 26 October 2017.  Gaiku Blog.

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