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Stop giving feedback. Do this instead.

How to help your team improve without sacrificing connectedness

Matt Munson
Matt Munson
4 min read
Stop giving feedback. Do this instead.
Stop giving feedback. Do this instead.

Looking for some support? If now is the time to consider coaching (or a CEO peer circle) reach out here.

Fed up with feedback

In a recent session with two cofounders, one of the founders asked the other, “Can I give you some feedback?” I paused the session right there and asked if I could intercede. After coaching over one hundred CEOs and teams, few words give me more pause than the word feedback.

I asked the founder, “What do you mean by feedback in that sentence?”

He paused, smiled, laughed, and said, “Wow. I’m not sure!”

And therein lies the challenge with this word.

Feedback is a critical part of a well-run organization:

  • 96% of employees believe that receiving regular feedback is beneficial.
  • Employees who receive recognition from management are 69% more likely to perform better at their work.
  • 43% of highly engaged employees receive feedback at least once a week.

With feedback being such a seemingly positive part of a well-run organization, why did I yank the handbrake in this coaching session? As a coach, I have witnessed the word feedback be bastardized more than any other word in the modern workplace.

In many teams I witness, feedback has become a catchall to include:

  • Being hard on you for not meeting a need of mine I never expressed
  • Giving you black and white advice while pretending I have better information than you
  • Offending or attacking you under the guise of helpfulness

People are not asking for any of this when they ask for feedback.

Imagine being at breakfast with your romantic partner when they suddenly say, “Can I give you some feedback?” How do you feel picturing that? If you are anything like me, you feel defensive, resistant, or perhaps outright angry. It seems strange that our romantic partner would offer to give us feedback.

I would suggest the reason it feels strange is that feedback is a loaded and frequently misused word.

So what is the alternative?

What am I really needing?

I would suggest entirely ridding your workplace vernacular of the word feedback. Instead, next time you feel the need to give feedback, ask yourself, “What am I really doing here”? Are you:

  • Sharing something you have observed?
  • Expressing a need?
  • Training the person how to perform a task you are an expert in?
  • Venting emotion?
  • Something else entirely?

Check-in on what you are really doing, then label it as such. Next, check in to ensure the other person is up for what you are needing. Even if the other person is your employee, the conversation will lead to disconnection if they aren’t in a place to receive or provide what you need.

So check in.

Can I share something I have observed?

Can I express a need?


Unmet needs

In the case of an unmet need, check in with yourself to see whether you have made your needs explicit. If not, do so.

One of the most potent questions my own CEO coach used to ask me was, “How are you complicit in creating the circumstances you say you despise?” Most of us, myself included, are complicit in our needs not being met because we fail to express our needs openly.

Venting emotions

If you are dumping your anxieties on someone who reports to you, take some time to tend to your own emotions before having any conversation.

Giving advice

If you are giving advice, ensure the advice has been requested. And check in with the other person to see if advice is really what they want or if support or brainstorming might be helpful.

In coaching, we try to refrain from ever giving advice. Not because we don’t have ideas of what the person might do in a given circumstance, but because to give advice presupposes we know better with less information than the client does with full information. That is rarely true.

Teachable moments

Finally, if you really are giving feedback aimed at helping the other person to improve, ensure that guidance is welcome. Ensure you have the trust to support the guidance being received.

A helpful framework for sticky conversations

When in doubt, lean on the non-violent communications framework for challenging conversations. The name can be misleading, rather than ‘non-violent communications’ it might be called ‘how to have hard conversations like an adult’. In any case, here’s the idea:

  1. Observe: What I am observing (Hint: if you were watching the person in a film, this is what you would see from the audience.)
  2. Feel: How I am feeling about it. (Hint: feelings are single-words: happy, sad, anxious, etc.)
  3. Need: What I generally need (Hint: this is evergreen)
  4. Request: What I would like from you in this specific situation (Hint: this is a concrete, actionable request).

To illustrate, here is an un-artful form of giving feedback:

You are always late for Zoom calls, and people find you really hard to work with as a result.

This one sentence might leave a person feeling defensive (I’m not always late!) and resentful.

Instead, try this:

I noticed you were late for a few meetings lately. I am feeling concerned about us wasting time as a team. I need us to stick to starting times we all agree on. Would you please do your best to be on time to upcoming meetings?

Observations are irrefutable and help people lean into listening instead of out toward defensiveness. Naming a feeling creates connection. And an honest expression of needs and requests opens up the opportunity for adult discussion and partnership.

Give this a try; I would love to hear how it feels for you.

Human relationships are tricky, and leading or partnering with humans can be hard. Feel free to reach out if you would like to chat about any particularly sticky situations you find yourself in.

I appreciate that you are here. If you were forwarded this email and it resonates, you can subscribe here.

With love from LA,


Looking for some support? If now is the time to consider coaching (or a CEO peer circle) reach out here.
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