Leadership Tools

The Art of Giving and Receiving Constructive Feedback



Knowing how to deal with feedback is one of the building blocks for personal growth. And yet many leaders and employees do not place enough value on providing feedback, or even avoid the issue. How can feedback be conveyed and received as part of a constructive experience? How can leaders foster a healthy feedback culture in their teams and organizations?


Needless to say, there are always two sides to feedback. And both sides, namely the giver and the receiver, are important players in this interaction. 


Let’s start on the receiving end, as it is the receiver who decides how to interpret the message and whether or not to make any change in response. What makes receiving feedback so hard? Basically, the process collides with the tension between two core human needs – the desire to learn and grow, or to become, and the need to be accepted for who we are, or to belong.


The framework of the Fixed Mindset vs. Growth Mindset may provide us with some explanations of this polarity. People with a fixed mindset are inclined to avoid challenges, give up easily, see effort as pointless, perceive the success of others as a threat and – most importantly in this context – they tend to ignore feedback. Accordingly, in the receiver’s mind, the limiting belief might sound something like: “I don‘t want to know because I can't change anyway, or even worse, it might hurt”. In this attitude of victimization, the receiver has the conviction that feedback is a threat to his or her identity and jeopardizes the feeling of belonging.   


Yet the assumption is that every one of us is born with a growth mindset – or at least with a good dose of curiosity. As we live and fail, only some of us retain this. For many, failing is associated with the expectation of social rejection rather than with the notion that “FAILing” is the “First Attempt In Learning”.


So how can we become better feedback receivers? It is, in fact, all about having the right attitude, pursuing your own development with intention and not merely reacting in response to triggers – and this is true for both employees and for leaders.


  • First, it requires the willingness to truly listen and to put yourself in the shoes of the person giving you the feedback. What do they mean? What does it mean, for example, if someone tells you to “be more assertive”? Try to understand what exactly you should do differently, and why.
  • Second, be curious and ask questions. If no one is giving you feedback, ask for it. Ask questions like: “What did you like about….?” or “What is one thing I could improve on?” Make an effort to hear feedback as potentially valuable advice from a fresh perspective, rather than as a criticism of how you’ve done things in the past.
  • Third, don’t rush to react. Make sure you’re in a calm emotional state – breathe and take time to reflect. If on reflection you still feel like the feedback is too negative, you might want to seek more information from other people.
  • Finally, engage in small experiments. Perhaps there is something really valuable in advice – so you need to test it out. If it works, great. If it doesn’t, you can try again, tweak your approach, or decide to end the experiment.


Learning from feedback is a great asset to people who have a growth mindset. They are apt to embrace challenges, perceive the success of others as inspiration, persist in the face of setbacks, and see effort as the path to mastery. In this context, the accelerating belief of a feedback receiver may sound something like: “Help me to grow, I‘m coachable”. This proactive attitude is very much akin to wanting to be the author of one’s own life and, demonstrates nicely how the desire to become can prevail.


On the giver’s end things are just as complex, as many leaders and co-workers avoid providing meaningful feedback to their colleagues. One reason for this is the fear of hurting others or giving offence. If the other person regards the feedback as a criticism, it may be a threat to the relationship.


Indeed, feedback can be threatening if the giver frames it as an evaluation of past performance, instead of presenting it as good advice or a helpful suggestion for the future. It is, crucial, therefore, that the person giving feedback is genuinely interested in the receiver’s development; in order to move forward together, the giver needs to believe in the receiver’s potential.


That said, a healthy feedback culture will inevitably improve collaboration and output in a thriving organization. So how can we, as leaders, foster a healthy feedback culture in our team and organization?


First and foremost, it is important to set the right frame: talk to your employees about feedback aversion. Let them know that feedback is an important asset in maintaining a trusting work environment. As with medicine, it often takes a while for people to see the benefits. But in time, they come to realize that feedback is a gift and is key to their personal development.


In very general terms, there are three rules of thumb for giving constructive feedback:

  • Be timely. It is best not to wait until the end of the year to pass on the accumulated pile of feedback. Make it a habit to provide feedback immediately – however, do so in a calm and considered state, and not as a response to triggers. Also, the receiver will show more understanding if the person giving the feedback talks about their subjective perception of the situation, rather than objective facts.
  • Tackle the specific behavior. It helps to be very clear about what can be improved. What was the exact situation? Which behavior did the person show that was not helpful?
  • Talk about the past and future impact. What has it sparked in me emotionally? What is the request for new behavior in the future? Make sure the receiver understands the “why” behind the requested improvement.


Clearly, we need much more appreciation than we realize. Therefore, the notion of giving appreciative feedback needs to be highlighted separately. The American psychologist John Gottman stated that in stable, satisfied relationships, the ratio of positive to negative communication must be at least 5:1 – that means one negative interaction should be compensated by five positive ones. As relationships are omnipresent, this understanding can also be applied to providing feedback in the working environment.


In practice, it all starts with focusing on the questions “What did the person do well? What would I like to see more of?” Emphasizing these two aspects will positively motivate the feedback receiver to feel empowered, and to be creative based on what is well received by others. 


Finally, to promote a healthy feedback culture in your organization, it is essential to make providing feedback into a habit. This could even start with positive micro feedback – i.e.  a smile, a friendly glance, saying hello, etc. It is, in fact, the aggregation of these positive signals, showing that you care, which increases likeability and the level of trust in a relationship. And this brings people into an upward instead of a downward spiral.









Photo by Kira auf der Heide on Unsplash