Last week, I wrote about why Chat-GPT, and AI generally, seems to take feedback more effectively than humans. But to be fair to humans, it’s not a fair fight.

The fact is that, while some people are temperamentally better at taking critiques, giving and receiving feedback are skills just like everything else—and they’re honed through practice. However, from what I have seen, we aren’t really taught how to give and receive feedback well in most professional environments.

Most leaders I know want people to learn from mistakes and even criticism, but they don’t know how to make that learning systemic in their organizations. The key is to build a feedback culture, which is synonymous with a learning culture.

The first step to building a feedback culture is to create a high degree of psychological safety. Many leaders, in attempting to model and encourage high performance, inadvertently make the mistake of creating a culture where employees are afraid to make mistakes or share failures.

Instead of making an example of people who make mistakes or punishing them publicly, it’s better to reinforce that mistakes are a natural part of growth, and that they are acceptable as long as people learn from them. I have always loved the adage, “it’s okay to make mistakes here, but it’s not okay to repeat them.”

Once psychological safety normalizes the discussion of mistakes, the next step is to ensure managers and leaders respond to those errors quickly and productively with effective feedback. Doing that requires some ground rules.

First and foremost, professional feedback should never take the form of personal or character critiques. Feedback should be focused on the specific behavior or actions of an employee, not their fixed characteristics.

For example, consider a manager who believes their direct report is not incorporating enough strategic thinking into their work. They can deliver this feedback in two ways; you’ll probably see which one is better:

  • Option A: The manager tells their employee that they are not a strategic thinker and they must improve in that area to advance in the company. The manager thinks they’re delivering helpful, if blunt, feedback. However, the direct report feels attacked, hurt and unsure what to do with this criticism. Worse yet, they don’t believe they can improve.
  • Option B: A manager gives their employee specific examples of where the employee’s work was not strategic enough, and why it generated a poor outcome. The manager never describes the employee as non-strategic; they just focus on their behavior. Then, they help the employee understand how they can approach their work more strategically going forward, leaving the employee with clear steps to improve.

I have spoken with so many employees who still struggle with confidence years later as a result of a boss who criticized their character or personally insulted them. And I’d wager that many of those bosses didn’t intend to insult their employees—it was just a byproduct of poor feedback practices. Character-based feedback doesn’t motivate employees to improve, but it may compel them to quit.

While focusing on behavior, not character, is the golden rule of giving feedback, it’s not the only one. Here are a few more tips:

  • Use the SBO Framework: To ensure your feedback stays situational, use the Situation, Behavior, Outcome (SBO) Framework. Start by describing what happened (situation), then how the employee responded (behavior) and what the result of the behavior was (outcome). This illustrates the issue in a way that is based on actions, not personality traits.
  • Don’t dance around it: When you’re nervous to give tough feedback, it can be natural to delay with small talk, or even compliments, to make the person comfortable. But when giving feedback, it’s best to get right into it. I’ve learned to handle hard conversations by saying upfront “this is going to be a difficult conversation.” It’s direct, but it sets the expectation properly.
  • Ensure understanding: Feedback can be hard to process, especially if you aren’t clarifying things in a digestible way for the recipient. Once you’ve shared the critique, be sure to allow the person to ask questions and confirm that they understand what they need to do going forward. You should also follow-up in writing to confirm what has been discussed.
  • Be timely: If you hold on to feedback for months waiting for an employee’s performance review, this not only makes the employee feel attacked, but it doesn’t help them change or learn in real time. Instead, use the 72-hour rule for feedback: deliver the feedback within 72 hours or just drop it.

It’s also important to note that feedback is a two-way street. Even the most resilient people don’t love hearing about their flaws or mistakes. That’s why, just as leaders must be trained to give feedback, both employees and leaders must be trained to receive it. Building intellectual capacity in an organization requires both sides of a feedback conversation to be fully engaged, effective and respectful.

Quote of The Week

“To avoid criticism, do nothing, say nothing, and be nothing.”


–Elbert Hubbard