5 mistakes you’re probably making when you give feedback

If you’re still not sure whether nailing feedback conversations should be one of your main skills to prioritise as a leader, check out these studies:

  • Gallup data shows that when employees receive “meaningful feedback”, they are almost four times more likely than other employees to be engaged.
  • Meaningful feedback isn’t the norm, however. In another recent Gallup survey, only 26% of employees agree that the feedback they receive improves their work.
  • Virtually all of the 2,700 employees in a HBR survey wanted more feedback. Almost two-thirds agreed that “my performance and possibilities for success in my career would have increased substantially if I had been given more feedback.”

So, how do we make increase the feedback we’re providing – and its value to others?

Below are five common traps I see leaders fall into when it comes to feedback conversations.

BTW, I’m not immune. I’ve fallen prey (and still do) to some of these blunders. But if we can be aware of them and choose something different instead, our team will thank us. And we’re more likely to fall into that rare camp of leaders who do feedback well.

  • The shit sandwich.

The idea of saying something positive, then something negative, then finishing with a positive was super popular in the nineties, largely due to the popularity of the book, The One Minute Manager.

Let’s put that trend to bed for good.

The good-bad-good approach is too formulaic. People have been subjected to this method before, so they know what’s coming. And it feels disingenuous and fake. You also risk people not hearing the message you’re trying to convey. Either they don’t hear the piece of constructive feedback and only hear the positive – or they tune out whatever good you’re saying and only hear the bad – so you may as well have not said anything good in the first place.

Overall, it’s confusing and it lacks clarity.


Separate your positive and redirectional feedback conversations. If they do something you want them to continue, then say so. If they’re coming unstuck, have a conversation about that. Just don’t sandwich it all together. Simple.

  •  Blur words or indirect and wishy-washy language.

Rude. Proactive. Defensive. These are emotionally-laden words which LeeAnn Renninger calls ‘blur words’ in this great short video. Blur words not only engage the amygdala and throw someone into defensive mode, they’re also not objective, descriptive or clear. They’re too open to interpretation. What exactly does ‘proactive’ in this situation mean anyway? 


Instead of saying “you’re not reliable” you could say “you said that you would get that report done by 11am and I noticed I still haven’t received it yet”. Use observable data points. This is much more brain-friendly than blur words. Focus on the actions and the situation around what happened. What you observed —not the personal attributes or characteristics of the person.

  • Making it a monologue not a conversation.

People actually want negative feedback, as long as it’s delivered skillfully and the leader who is giving the feedback also listens. See this HBR video for what I mean. One of the most common mistakes I see leaders make is that they hold their assumptions tightly and forget to do two key things – get curious and listen actively. 


Providing someone with your observations is just the start of a feedback conversation. You need to invite the other person to help you understand what’s going on, what their perspective is and to fill in the gaps of what you don’t know. What are you missing? People are more likely to listen to you if they feel they have been listened to first. So, make it a conversation, not a monologue.

  • Not giving enough positive feedback.

Often in my coaching conversations, a leader will remark on some positive thing a direct report is doing. I ask, “have you told them that?” More often than not, the leader will admit sheepishly they haven’t specifically fed back to their direct report the good stuff they’re noticing.


I’ve said it before, catch people doing well. Be genuine. If you think to yourself, “that was good”, don’t keep it to yourself – tell them! There are various studies suggesting the ratio for positive and negative feedback should be 3:1. Three lots of positive to one lot of negative. If that’s too far of a stretch, challenge yourself to up the ratio to at least 2:1 or even 1:1.

  • Not seeking feedback enough. Or worse, making it a career-limiting move for people to tell you the truth. 

You can’t expect others to be open to receiving feedback if you don’t seek it and receive it well yourself. I don’t think leaders ask their direct reports or colleagues for feedback nearly enough.

The best leaders regularly ask others for feedback. In particular, the best leaders ask their direct reports what they can do to improve in the way they lead. By asking for feedback, you’re modeling what you want to see in others. You’re also getting useful data points to help you grow your self-awareness and improve your leadership practice. And who’s not for that?

When you first start asking your direct reports for feedback on how you can improve the working relationship, don’t be surprised if they stay schtum and mumble something like “nothing, you’re doing great!” Don’t give up. Keep asking.


  • Ask them to come to the next one-on-one with at least one thing, no matter small, that you can do to improve the relationship or the way you lead.
  • Tell them about a weakness you’re currently working on and ask them to help you get better at this by letting you know when you fall into the trap or when you get it right with them.
  • When they do have the courage to give you some redirectional feedback, make it a positive experience. See this blog I wrote on how to receive feedback effectively.

It’s through feedback – from both the environment and the people around us – that we grow and evolve. As leaders, our priorities should include both giving and receiving feedback well. And in that same spirit, I’d love to hear what resonates for you here in what I’m saying, and how I could make it easier to get the accessible information you need to ignite better leadership.

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Suzi McAlpine

Suzi McAlpine is a Leadership Development Specialist and author of the award-winning leadership blog, The Leader’s Digest. She writes and teaches about accomplished leadership, what magic emerges when it’s present, and how to ignite better leadership in individuals, teams and organisations. Suzi has been a leader and senior executive herself, working alongside CEOs and executive teams in a variety of roles. Her experience has included being a head-hunter, an executive coach, and a practice leader for a division at the world’s largest HR consulting firm. Suzi provides a range of services as a Leadership Development Specialist, including executive coaching, leadership workshops and development programmes for CEOs, leadership teams and organisations throughout New Zealand.

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