How to Give Tough Feedback

how to give tough feedback

Feedback is one of the most powerful forces in the universe. But we are often too afraid to use it.

When you bring something out into direct sunlight and take a good look, you will know exactly where things stand.

You can see the good, the bad, and the ugly. Which is immensely helpful because you can double-down on the good, fix the bad, and pretty up the ugly.

But the thought of knowing for sure is a difficult one.

We imagine that we are doing well. Why muck that up with clear cut facts that might prove things aren’t quite as awesome as we like to think?

We already know that we need to improve in certain areas. Why rub salt in the wound?

What’s more, we know that our team members know all of this too.

So let’s just carry on with business. The natural course of things will lead us all to improve. It just takes a little time.

The problem, of course, is that while we might make progress over time, that progress will be much slower and much less efficient than if we used feedback.

Why we tend to avoid feedback

We don’t like to be criticized. It hits us pretty low of Maslow’s hierarchy because it can harken back to childhood where criticism from people who we relied upon for affection and guidance may have delivered it in a way that hurt.

Criticism can strike a nerve. Sometimes a pretty deep one.

So many of us recoil at the thought of criticism. Similar to how we would jump back from any other threat that hit us in some area of basic need (hot stove, attacking bear, bank robber).

That might be why we sometimes feel a bit stuck when it’s time to give feedback. We don’t want to invoke that feeling in someone else. And we don’t welcome the silent wrath toward us, which is unpleasant and unproductive.

Like going to the gym, ordering a salad, or balancing the checkbook, it’s preferable to skip it for now.

How to give tough feedback that helps people grow

When I struggle with feedback, I know that I’m not being helpful. Because if I don’t muster up the guts to have a direct and possibly difficult conversation with someone, I’m letting a lot of people down.

I’m not helping myself, the team, or the person.

Which is why I find it helpful to focus on the purpose of the feedback.

First, you have to have a worthy goal. The reason you are giving feedback must be for some greater good. Maybe it’s to help correct mistakes, resolve a situation, or point out an opportunity for professional growth.

You need a good reason. That helps to keep the focus where it should be. And it helps to get you in the right mindset.

How you say something in a tough feedback situation is probably even more important than what you say.

And the what you say is best presented in a “just the facts” mode. Ideally, by stating things you have directly observed.

“I noticed that the chart in the report was inaccurate” is much better than, “Your work is getting sloppy.”

Whatever facts you present, stick to the basics and then let the person talk.

I can’t tell you how much I’ve learned by simply keeping my mouth shut. Particularly in difficult conversations.

Let the other person process and respond. Let them tell you what they are thinking. Let them maybe give you some insights that you never would have guessed at.

Now, you are in discussion mode. And ideally, you are working together to figure out what the next steps should be.

One great next steps is simply an agreement to have a follow up conversation. Because it’s rare that you would be able to address everything in one sitting.

And also because agreeing to continue the conversation recognizes that this is an important long-term commitment to improvement.


Feedback can be a touchy subject. We often don’t like feedback for ourselves. And we struggle to give difficult feedback to others.

But feedback is critical.

A speedometer keeps you traveling at a safe and legal speed. A lab result helps your doctor diagnose and treat you.

And feedback at work helps us grow as professionals.

When you give someone clear, depersonalized, and actionable feedback, you help them to be able to grow as a professional.

Particularly if you listen to their perspective and collaborate with them on approaches and solutions.

Even if it’s a bit awkward in the moment, once you get an important conversation going it can change everything.