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Feedback Dos and Dont’s

Last week we made the case for creating a culture of feedback in our groups and organizations. This week we’re going to talk about how to maintain that culture with some important feedback dos and don’ts. The focus of this post will be mostly on constructive or corrective feedback. That being said, I believe that they can (and should) be applied to positive feedback as well!

Feedback must have purpose

When giving feedback, it’s important to separate your own personal preferences from the requirements of the role or responsibility. For example, in our organization, we train coaches in a certain philosophy and model of facilitation. But, our coaches also all have their own unique individual facilitation styles. It’s important that when we give them feedback, that we don’t stifle their freedom of expression (because that’s what makes them so awesome!), but also that certain expectations and standards are met by all team members. In this way, feedback can’t just be about ‘you’. Our feedback has to serve a bigger purpose either for the organization or the people that we serve, so that the changes that people make have a positive and direct impact.

Align feedback with goals

Often, we see that the feedback we give is not actually aligned with our desired culture. For example, we might want a culture of teamwork and problem solving, but we reward or punish our group for individual performance and technical skill. This problem is common in organizations because it’s easier to focus on results driven behavior than on some of the softer skills that we want to develop. Our feedback has to be aligned with the big picture goals we have for our team and our organization. When we can do that, we will begin to see powerful change in the way that we do work together.

Feedback is a two way street

We have to open pathways for feedback communication up and down our organizational hierarchies. It can’t always come from one status or position – that’s not how organizations grow and transform. If we, as leaders, are going to give feedback to our employees or followers, we have to be willing to receive it as well. And not just willing, we actually have to establish systems or agreements that encourage and allow people to give feedback without fear of punishment. And I don’t mean a suggestion box or an anonymous 360 assessment. I mean real constructive conversations between different levels of our organizations. We can start by teaching our groups how to give and receive effective feedback, and then dedicate time to these conversations on a regular basis. These culture shifts take time, so be patient!

Appropriately manage and respond to emotions

Feedback, whether it is positive or corrective, can be very emotional. This is because it can be difficult to separate the people that we know from what we are trying to address.

First, we have to learn to appropriately manage our own emotions when giving and receiving feedback. When we give feedback, we hold a certain level of influence. Because of this we have to think about the way that our emotions or reactions might affect others. If we enter a conversation with anger or frustration, our message might not be heard because we’ve put someone on the defense. We have to enter into feedback conversations in the right headspace for it to be effective. Now, the right headspace is not synonymous with the perfect headspace. Be fair to yourself. Enter into these conversations with good intent, but also be aware of your impact.

Likewise, when we receive feedback, we have to think about how our reactions may impact the person who is giving us feedback. Because this is such a vulnerable interaction, they will be affected in some way by our responses. It’s important to note that when I say ‘manage’ your reactions, I don’t mean suppress or hide. You are going to feel the way that you feel about feedback, and that is totally okay. In their book, Thanks for the Feedback, Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen say that, Receiving feedback sits at the junction of two conflicting human desires. We do want to learn and grow. And we also want to be accepted just as we are right now.” That is such a powerful dichotomy for us to balance on our own. We can start by recognizing our emotional responses, communicating the way that we are feeling, and then channeling our reactions into productive resolutions.  

Then, we have to take it a step further and think about how we react and respond to others emotions through the process. Even if I’ve referred to someone’s feedback contract beforehand, there’s no way that I can know for certain how they are going to react because there are so many different factors that will affect individual responses. The way that I interact is so incredibly important to how the feedback conversation will continue or be resolved. When people get defensive and argumentative, I tend to stand my ground. When people get emotional and teary, I tend to shut down and withdraw. This is important for me to admit so that I can intervene with more constructive behavior. Every situation will be different, but I think that it’s important to recognize the feelings that are present (on both sides), be very clear in your communication of expectations or concerns, and don’t neglect agreeing on next steps.

Feedback can’t be about things that we can’t change

The first thing that comes to mind is our personalities. Our personalities are something that we are born with, they are a core part of our being. And while they might develop over time, it is still very difficult to change these patterns of behavior. Because of this, it’s unfair for us to give people feedback about their personalities. Now, we may need to talk to someone about personality differences so that we can work better together on our team, but that becomes a different conversation. Conversations about group dynamics can’t really be framed as “feedback” because both parties need to come to some sort of conclusion about how to move forward differently together as they are. That being said, these kinds of discussions are often just as challenging as feedback because they are still so personal. Make sure to give these discussions the same care as you would any other feedback conversation. 

Honor feedback contracts (when you can)

I say “when you can” because there are some feedback conversations where we just don’t get the choice. Timing is one of the biggest interferences to our feedback contracts. We might want feedback as soon as possible, but our manager might not be able to have a conversation with us a for a week. We might prefer to have a night to sleep on something but a situation might require immediate attention and the feedback can’t wait. As the person giving feedback, we can help by acknowledging that while the feedback might not be in their preferred delivery, that it is still coming from a place of consideration and care. As the person receiving this kind of feedback, we need to be understanding and respectful of the circumstances while also being prepared to be surprised by our own reactions or responses. In these situations, we have to trust each that we will leave these conversations better than when we entered them.

Take advantage of feedback opportunities

If you know that you need to have a feedback conversation with someone, then it is your responsibility to initiate it. No one else can have that conversation for you. If you find that you aren’t willing to give the feedback, then you may need to find a way to work around or through the issue differently. What I have found is that this often means we have to manage our own feelings or expectations about that situation, which, if left unaddressed can lead to further conflict down the road. We may be hesitant to approach conversations that are more difficult or high risk than others, but when we take advantage of these feedback opportunities we can normalize a positive culture of feedback that continuously supports and develops our teams.  


The most important piece of advice I can give is that feedback takes practice. It’s not something that we have ever been taught to do and to do well. Be fair to yourself and the development of others through the feedback process. We can’t be perfect but we can all always be working to be better.

*Leadership Lesson*

This week, I challenge you to put these tips into practice. Lay the groundwork for effective feedback and then, if there is a conversation that you have been avoiding, give feedback a try. I hope you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the results!

*Meet the Author*

Caelan Cooney is another Millennial who wants ‘to make an impact’, a self-proclaimed movie critic, avid explorer, lifelong learner, and Chapman University graduate.