Feedback Needn’t Be Painful

Avoid These Common Mistakes When Giving Feedback  

Think back to who you were a few years ago. Where were you in your career? Did you have a professional goal for yourself? What challenges have you faced in reaching that goal?

Now fast forward to the present, and reflect upon how much you have grown. Did you get to where you are today by always performing perfectly, or did you occasionally make mistakes? And when you did make mistakes, was there someone who you could count on for honest, helpful feedback?

Feedback is a critical part of development; it is a necessity if we hope to reach our professional goals. Without feedback, people are less likely to recognize and learn from their mistakes, and therefore less likely to move forward in their careers. While we can give ourselves feedback, some of the most helpful information comes from those around us who can help us see the “blind spots” in ourselves.

Yet, constructive feedback can be difficult to give, and can be equally difficult to receive. Most people perceive their own performance more positively than others see it, and thus critical feedback can put a damper on their self-esteem. (Cannon & Witherspoon, 2005). Research actually shows that positive illusions about oneself are necessary for maintaining a sense of self-efficacy, confidence, and optimism (Taylor et. al, 2003).  This is to say: thinking that you are doing a better job than you actually are can help you believe that you are capable. Consequently, having confidence in your capability will make you more likely to put in your best work. Thus, if not tactfully given, critical feedback can actually decrease motivation to perform (Kluger & DeNisi, 1996).

So how can we give constructive feedback to those around us without crushing their self-confidence? In their paper, Actionable feedback: Unlocking the power of learning and performance improvement, Mark Cannon and Robert Witherspoon (2005) introduce a number of common mistakes that people make when giving feedback.

To best understand these mistakes, we'll use the example of Michael and his manager. Michael is a clerk working at a small grocery store, and his manager has noticed that even though he's generally a friendly guy, he can be unintentionally rude when interacting with customers. 

Mistake #1: Attack the person instead of the behavior:

When giving feedback, it is critical to distinguish between giving constructive criticism about a behavior, vs. criticizing the person themself. Person-level criticism, such as you are not friendly enough for this job, is likely to interfere with Michael’s self-esteem. Research shows that by unintentionally attacking someone’s self-esteem, critical feedback can inhibit performance, producing the opposite of the intended effect (Cannon & Witherspoon, 2005). Feedback about a behavior, on the other hand, is less likely to have this consequence. An example of behavioral feedback would be, I’ve noticed that you don’t always smile when interacting with customers.

Mistake #2: Making vague assertions without examples:

Concrete examples help the recipient to understand exactly what they could be improving upon. In addition to targeting the person rather than the behavior, the previous example, you are not friendly enough for this job, is also very vague. Michael may be confused because he considers himself a friendly person and isn't quite sure what the manager is talking about. Instead, the manager could follow up his statement by saying, last week I noticed that a woman asked you how your day was, and rather than talking with her or even smiling, you responded with a nod. This specific example can help Michael understand how his manager came to his conclusion. 

 Mistake #3: Failure to explain the impact of the behavior:

An explanation of the impact of the behavior helps the recipient see why behavior change is important, and what consequences the behavior could produce. The previous example could be made even more powerful by explaining what happened next.  I noticed the smile on the woman’s face disappear, and she looked less happy when she left our store. In an industry as competitive as ours, a single negative experience can cause a customer not to come back in the future, or to write a poor review on Yelp. Even if you weren’t intending to be unfriendly, she still may have perceived it as such. By shining light on the consequences of Michael’s behavior, the manager is giving him the opportunity to decide for himself if changing his actions is important. Without this critical component, the unspoken reason for making the change is “because I said so.”

 Mistake #4: Failure to explain the circumstances under which the behavior occurs:

Even with all of the previous contingencies met, Michael might still feel bothered. Yes, he was unfriendly to the customer in this specific situation, but what about all of the times when he has gone out of his way to make conversation with customers? By including the circumstances under which the behavior typically occurs, the manager can mitigate this confusion and drive home the intended point. He may want to add, for example, I’ve definitely seen you be friendly plenty of times before, but I’ve noticed that similar scenarios tend to happen when you’re working early in the morning. This context will allow the recipient to be mindful of his or her behavior at the right times.

If you are careful to attack the behavior rather than the person, support your assertions with concrete examples, explain the impact of the behavior, and mention the circumstances under which the behavior tends to occur, you may be surprised at the positivity of the recipient’s response.

 Michael: Yes, I do remember that woman, and I suppose I do have a harder time engaging customers when I talk to them early in the morning. It’s just hard for me to be extroverted when I’m tired. I’ll make an effort to get up a bit earlier so I can drink my coffee before coming to work – but would it be possible to avoid scheduling me for early morning shifts whenever possible?

 Manager: I do have to schedule you in the morning sometimes, but I’ll avoid it whenever I can.

As illustrated by this example, feedback needn’t be painful. In fact, a carefully executed feedback process can be mutually beneficial for the feedback giver and for the recipient.  


Cannon, M. D., and Witherspoon, R. 2005. Actionable feedback: Unlocking the power of learning and performance improvement. Academy of Management Executive, 19 (2). 120-133.

Kluger, A.  and DeNisi, A. 1996. The effects of feedback interventions on performance: A historical review, a metaanalysis, and a preliminary feedback intervention theory. Psychological Bulletin, 119(2): 254-284.

Moss, S. E., and Sanchez, J. I. 2004. Are your employees avoiding you? Managerial strategies for closing the feedback gap. Academy of Management Executive, 18(1). 32 – 43.

Taylor, S. E., Lerner, J.S., Sherman, D.K., Sage, R.M., & McDowell, N.K. 2003. Portrait of the self-enhancer: Well adjusted and well liked or maladjusted and friendliness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84(1): 165-167.