How can you give great feedback? And when does feedback backfire?

Do you have managers that come into meetings, tear apart your idea, then walk out again? Not great right? As managers and leaders, our job is often to give feedback, critique and help get people unstuck. But so often poor management is due to poor feedback. So what does it mean to give good feedback?

Ever had a manager ‘swoop in’, give feedback that is just full of criticism, not particularly helpful, and generally ill-informed? Then before you can respond, they ‘swoop’ on out, leaving you with a pile of work to do that doesn’t really make sense, no time to do the work, and an unhappy team (as well as presumably an unhappy boss – but who knows they didn’t stay long enough to really let you find out).

You are not alone! This is often a symptom of ‘Seagull management’, and one of the multiple symptoms of this extremely unhelpful type of managing teams.

“A 2006 study of 1,500 UK office workers by recruitment outfit Office Angels defined seagull managers by their propensity to fly into office situations without being armed with any knowledge about the potential challenges, squawk out orders to workers and promptly leave.”

— Excerpt from: How to Manage a Horrible Boss: The Seagull Manager – Jermaine Haughton

Dealing with such managers is a topic for a different day. But how do you know that you are being a good manager, providing useful feedback, and not just lurching from one meeting to another, providing criticisms along the way that don’t really offer anything meaningful?

Here are some interesting tips to help you provide quality feedback, and actually reduce the amount of work you need to do in the medium and long-term.

Recognising why you are giving feedback and if it is really necessary 

Next time you are in a meeting or reviewing a document for someone, ask yourself: what is necessary and why?

All too often it is easy to just launch into critiquing without understanding the purpose behind the critique. Here are a few questions to ask yourself before you start speaking, hit ‘review’ or get out the red pen:

  • Is there really anything wrong with the current status of the item? Will the current work achieve the original purpose?
  • What is the value to the business/organization/team/individual of providing feedback? Will improving the work add anything of value to the business/organization/team/individual? What is the return on investment for you and the business? Is it actually worth your time and the individual’s time who will need to make changes? Does an individual need to learn an important skill that your critique could help develop?
  • If the feedback is about doing something of value for the business, how much really needs to change? For example, do you need perfect spelling/grammar? Is the work missing key sections/points? Only provide feedback on the things that really need to change.
  • If the feedback is about growing and training the employee, consider sitting with them to explain how to do things differently next time.
  • Are you tempted to provide feedback because it just isn’t the way you would have done the work?

Far too many of us feel that we must give feedback to be seen as useful and contributing. But as giving feedback necessarily means further work, it actually stops the finalising/closing of a project/activity/outcome and is all too often detrimental rather than helpful.

Have the goal of aiming to put yourself out of the ‘feedback’ job

The best CEOs rarely give what many of us would consider feedback/criticism. They are there to provide strategy, direct activities, and make decisions. The reason: they have a team around them that they have nurtured so the team knows what is needed and the CEO trusts them to get things done. This should always be our goal! It makes for a happier, empowered and more productive team, and it frees up your time as a manager for what really matters: the strategy and decision-making!

So aim to always educate with your feedback, not just tell someone what is wrong. For example, if the feedback is around something as simple as style/grammar/spelling in a public document, don’t just edit the document, but sit with the person and explain your reasoning. This is an upfront investment in your time and may take more than one session, but eventually, you know they will provide quality content. Even if you still then need to review (its always a good idea to have a second pair of eyes over anything really important), your job will become much easier and your reviews will be quicker. Plus if you don’t have time to review something, you know you can actually trust them to do a good job.

The same applies to all other feedback. Aim to develop the individual so that they don’t need you in the future!

Giving good feedback

Now you know why you are giving feedback, its time to make the feedback useful.

  1. Avoid being vague. Make sure that any feedback is clearly actionable. What do they need to do and why? 
  2. Focus on one issue at a time.
  3. Don’t be too critical: focus on positives as well as negatives. If a lot of work is needed start by focusing on the most important items.
  4. Assess how much time is needed to complete the actions, and agree a timeline with the individual.
  5. How can you make time in the person’s schedule to complete the new activity? What can be dropped/postponed from their todo list?
  6. Does the item need to bring it back to you for further review? Make this clear.
  7. How can you ensure that the person learns from this so you don’t need to give this type of feedback again?
  8. Is there any positive feedback you can give? If there is no action to be taken, always still give some positive feedback.
  9. Be open to receiving comments/questions/concerns, and provide plenty of time for this phase in the discussion. Don’t be defensive if they don’t like your critique, but focus instead on addressing their issues.
  10. Do you need to see this type of thing next time? If not, tell them!


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