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I was going to give you feedback but…

I was going to give you feedback but…

How a leader provides feedback is one of those distinguishing factors between being a leader by title and being a truly effective leader.  The delivery of frequent feedback allows for continuous learning and performance improvement, something that we all want in our companies and personal lives.  Delivering feedback can be difficult to do. Time constraints can be an issue however, this is not the biggest barrier to giving meaningful feedback; how we give the feedback is.  Have you ever had someone tell you that it is not what you said, but how you said it, that caused an adverse reaction?  I definitely have.  How you deliver feedback, or what you say, is a critical factor for how effective the feedback will be.

Let’s first define feedback and discuss the two types that lead to desired outcomes.  Feedback is information about performance that helps the performer improve.  The key word in that definition is helps, by helps I mean that it is specific enough that the performer knows to repeat the behavior again if it’s desired or what adjustments he/she can make to improve performance.  The two types of helpful feedback are: Positive and Constructive.  Positive feedback is specific information that confirms to the performer that he/she is doing the right thing.  Constructive feedback is specific information about a less desirable behavior that decreases the likelihood it will occur again while also giving a description of a more desirable behavior to take its place. Both types of feedback help the person by pinpointing the desired behavior.

Used alone they have a strong effect, however when combined, they can actually negatively affect the desired impact on behavior(s).  A common example is “You did a good job, but…”  When you combine positive and constructive feedback it sends a mixed message and the word “but” acts as a verbal eraser for everything that came before it.  The performer can be left confused or frustrated about their performance which is not helpful. When in doubt, keep positive and constructive feedback separate.  There may, however, be times when this is not possible.  To prevent using the erasers (but or however) and instead increase the effectiveness of your feedback here are three suggestions:

Separate positive and constructive feedback: As noted above, this is the ideal approach—deliver positive feedback to the performer independent of constructive feedback. Tell the performer what you liked and leave it at that. The next time the person has the opportunity to engage in that behavior, provide corrective feedback as a prompt for what they can try differently.  The feedback can be in the form of “This time, I’d like to see you…” or “Before you do “x” you might want to try “y” instead…”

Constructive feedback, followed by positive feedback later: For serious issues, start by delivering only the corrective feedback so the performer is clear as to what they have done wrong or what they need to do differently.  Then watch for instances of improved performance and follow up with positive feedback.  Remember to keep shaping in mind—look for successive approximations and positively reinforce those.

Combining positive and constructive feedback: When you are working on issues of a less serious nature and spreading out your feedback isn’t practical, start by delivering positive feedback, then pause to allow the performer to understand what they’ve done well. After the brief pause, provide the constructive feedback as a recommendation that offers the performer a way to tweak or improve on what they have done.  This can be in the form of a simple- “You might also try this…” or “I saw someone do it this way…”. When it comes to improving your skills at delivering feedback of any kind, these three approaches will help the performer to clearly understand what they’ve done well and what they need to improve upon.  Each of these options prevents the use of the dreaded “but” that plagues our ability to give effective feedback.  Remember, the purpose of feedback is to help the performer improve.  By removing verbal erasers your feedback will be much more clear and of higher value to the performer.

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You might also like: http://aubreydaniels.com/management-traps-you-did-good-job-and-other-de-motivators  

Posted by Bryan Shelton

Bryan applies his knowledge and expertise in strategic planning to help organizations align employee performance with company goals. Bryan helps clients create improvement across a variety of business metrics including company growth, profitability, customer service, vision alignment, leadership development, and culture change. He also helps clients implement process improvement initiatives, improve sales results and using performance-pay systems to help drive company results. His behavior-based approaches and applications have supported clients’ improvement initiatives, leadership development, and the design and implementation of performance pay systems.


Great article. I just have a question about how you approach the feedback session. I continue to hear that a supervisor when providing feedback rather than being direct in sharing what they observed, they should ask questions to get the agent to become self aware and have them come up with what they should do differently. I would like your opinion on this approach. Thanks.

Because I like to address things in groups of 3's, I would like to share the 3 take-a-ways from this article; 1. I finally got a clear understanding of the purposes for constructive and positive feedback. 2. The term "eraser" was great. Erasers can negate any good or positive statements prior to it. 3. The phrases to use when you must bridge a positive and constructive feedback conversation were excellent. Thank you.

Hello Vincent—Thanks for the question. My recommendation is, when giving feedback, for the "giver" to clearly describe the behavior they saw. Giving a clearly pinpointed description of the behavior will allow the performer to understand exactly what behavior you want them to do more of, do less of, or do differently. Questions can be powerful after you have given the detailed description to help them connect (or identify) the impact of their behavior with the result or possible results. Questions can also help identify alternative behavior(s) if a preferred alternative is not known. For example, "Hey Bill, I saw you bypass the guard when you were working on that machine. What would happen if your arm got caught by the machine? (Pause for answer, after he describes the impact.) I don’t want to see you get hurt, so please use the guard on the machine next time you are working on it." Hope this helps.

Great suggestion Bryan. Thanks for taking the time to respond so quickly.

Bryan, Thanks for the article. I appreciate the new perspective since I've been using Dennis Reid's "sandwiching" method for years since attending a workshop he did on it. Would you happen to know if there are any studies comparing the two methods? Did you use any references or data to come to your suggestions? Thanks. Chad

Hello Chad, Thanks for the question. I am unaware of any one study that makes a direct comparison between the "sandwich" method and giving constructive feedback. However there is an abundance of research, both basic and applied, that support the recommendations I make in my blog. The fields basic research on pairing and conditioned aversive stimulus, along with the negative emotional responding exhibited by the performer, is enough for us to recommend against using the "but" or "sandwich" methods as a primary method of delivering feedback. There is also some nice research showing faster learning occurs at a high reinforcement to punishment ratios, Madsen &amp; Madsen (1974) found a 4:1 ratio and the Hart &amp; Risley (1995) for a 6:1 ration most effective in teaching new tasks. This is why I have suggested keeping positive feedback and constructive feedback separate when possible. Don Tosti has written several times about the differences between Formative (constructive) and Summative (motivational or reinforcing) feedback and suggests that formative feedback is best delivered before the next opportunity to perform and summative is best delivered immediately after performance. There are two studies that confirm this Brewer (1989) and Roberts (1997), both showed faster learning when formative feedback was given immediately before the next opportunity to respond. Based on a comprehensive review of feedback by Balcazer, Hopkins, and Suarez we know that feedback alone does not uniformly improve performance and adding reinforcing contingencies will greatly increase the effectiveness of feedback. Therefore my recommendation is to increase the amount of feedback you provide and work to establish your positive feedback as a conditioned reinforcer. There are two great books we recommend on our website that addresses feedback in one or more chapters; <a href="https://aubreydaniels.com/bringing-out-best-people-0" target="_blank" rel="nofollow">Bringing out the Best in People</a> and <a href="https://aubreydaniels.com/oops" target="_blank" rel="nofollow">Oops</a>. I would recommend getting one or both and taking a look. I hope this helps. Bryan

Thanks for your response, Bryan. I appreciate you sharing the references, and, again, great article! Chad

Hello Curtis, You have brought up several interesting points. I think you have identified some common problems for most leaders. When I ask a group of leaders "How often are your people doing the right thing?" I usually get a consensus around 85% of the time their people are engaging in the right behaviors. The common trap is for leaders to ignore the 85% and focus on the 15%. The leader's behavior of "error detection" or, looking for people engaging in the wrong behaviors, is reinforced by finding them. Over time, this "error detection" behavior is shaped to become the predominate prompt for interacting with their people. By separating the two you have lost a prompt for you to engage in feedback-giving behavior. This is where you might find it very helpful to pinpoint the behaviors you want to see out of your people. By clearly pinpointing the behaviors you want to see, you might find it much easier to provide positive feedback. I would recommend only focusing on 2 to 3 behaviors at a time and stay on them until the reliably occur without hesitation. You might also find keeping them printed and accessible helpful in the beginning as well as keeping a log of the interactions you have around those behaviors with each person. Being overstretched is another common issue with leaders. Your limited time means that you need to get the most out of every interaction. As you said, creating opportunities to be present to observe is crucial. Scheduling your days that include observation times will help. Relying on your other leaders to provide feedback on the pinpointed behaviors will also help. Once you are observing on a regular basis you can begin to help the performer identify the natural reinforcers that will maintain the behavior without your presence. There is an investment phase for every learning curve. When teaching a new skill leaders must heavily invest their time in the beginning and provide lots of reinforcement for any improvement towards the desired behavior. Once natural reinforcers begin to take over leaders can then begin to phase out their mediated reinforcers until eventually, the natural reinforcers are maintaining the pinpointed behavior. A leader then only needs to observe and reinforce the behavior occasionally. This is the return on your investment. Hope this helps, Bryan

I think another downside of the sandwich method is that you become dependent on problems as an opportunity to deliver praise. I have been trying to implement the above method of feedback delivery for a couple of years now and it surprised me how much I had previously relied on using contexts for constructive feedback (problems) as an opportunity to deliver positive feedback. Once I stopped using problems as opportunities for positive feedback, I have struggled with keeping a sufficient rate of delivery of positive feedback. Also, I find that when I am over-stretched, it is even more the difficult to identify opportunities when everything is going as it should. I think I need to create opportunities to be present when everything is fine instead of only going where troubleshooting is required. I am sure that I am not the only one. Any recommendations for these kinds of implementation issues?

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