How to give feedback without offending

As a manager, giving advice and feedback is a key part of the role therefore it is essential that they do so in a neutral and judgement-free manner, says Salman Raza

Feedback and advice are essential to personal and professional growth. However, even when it is necessary, receiving feedback can still trigger our ego. As humans we strive to be infallible and when we are told we are doing something wrong or we could do better, it shakes our perfect image that we are trying to maintain. Thus, when receiving feedback, we can often feel offended. But it doesn’t have to be that way. There are a few key things to consider when giving or receiving feedback. 

The first thing to remember is to check if the person you are offering feedback to is ready to receive it. You can do this by monitoring body language, tone of voice, and demeanor. A person in an elevated state of emotion (furious, terrified, depressed) might not be ready to receive advice. Their emotions are the loudest thing in the room. Emotions can steer us down a path of irrational behaviour. 

Ultimately, the most effective way to give advice or feedback is to offer someone a choice and present yourself as a neutral party. By leaving your bias out of the feedback, you create a judgment-free environment for the person you are trying to advise. But there are more tips you can engage with when giving feedback. Let’s take a look.

  1. Make the recipient feel safe: By avoiding defensive questions and passive-aggressive tendencies, you can help the recipient feel safe to receive the advice. Avoid phrases such as “we need to talk” or “I have something important to tell you”. That puts pressure on the moment. Instead, engage the individual in casual conversation and then move to your advice following these steps.
  2. Offer feedback on specific and observed behaviours: Rather than implied situations, make sure the feedback is related to a specific and observable behaviour. This will make the feedback more impactful. 

  3. Describe the observed behaviour: Be as specific and direct as possible. Describe the behaviour and avoid beating around the bush. For example: “I have observed you coming into the office late four days in the past three weeks. I would like to discuss this behaviour with you.”

    Also, make sure you ask the right questions. If you ask someone, “why do you do that?” you will put them in defensive mode. Perhaps ask: “Could you share with me how this makes you feel?” 

  4. Be timely and direct: Avoid too much small talk, it can make the recipient feel uneasy or detract from the importance of your conversation. Make sure you are delivering the feedback in a timely manner based on the situation at hand. Failure to do so will motivate passive aggression. Imagine if someone gave you feedback on a project you completed two years ago. It wouldn’t be relevant to your current growth, and it would feel as if that person harboured the advice for the entire two years. 

  5. Do not advise on personal characteristics or attitude: Has anyone ever said to you that ‘you need to change your attitude’? How did that make you feel? In most cases, the ego would be triggered, and the person would get defensive. When you offer advice on personal characteristics or attitude, you are telling the other party that something is wrong with them as a person. Changing your attitude is a lot harder than stopping or altering a troubling behaviour. 

  6. Avoid generalisations and words such as ‘need to’: When we say ‘need to’, we automatically take the choice out of the advice. People shut down when they hear that phrase. Very few humans on this earth like being told they have to do something. Keep the ego calm by avoiding those two words. 

Feedback is a gift

Whether you are giving feedback or receiving it, always remember it is a gift. The other party values you and wants to offer advice. You do not necessarily have to take it, but you should at least acknowledge it. By modeling this behaviour, you will inspire those around you to accept feedback in the same manner, with gratitude and awareness, even if it doesn’t feel applicable at the time. 

Salman Raza is the author of Life’s non-conformities: An auditor’s tale of practical application of social, emotional & behavioural strategies