How do you know when you’re ready to give feedback?
You’ve seen work that needs improvement. You heard a comment that was hurtful. You’ve observed a behavior that shouldn’t be repeated.
Giving feedback isn’t always easy. But clear, candid feedback given at the right time and with the right intention can be one of the greatest gifts to share with a team member.
We recently spoke with Dr. Hayley Lewis about the role of emotional intelligence when giving feedback. She gave us this sketch, adapted from Brené Brown’s book, Dare to Lead, with 10 signs that you’re in the right headspace to give feedback.
Below we’ve turned this into a checklist, along with a brief explanation of each point. It also includes an 11th check based on new data that Brené and her team have received.
So, are you ready to give feedback?
I know that I’m ready to give feedback when…
⬜ I’m ready to sit next to you rather than across from you.
Sports teams in competition face off. Work teams with shared goals are on the same side. To give effective feedback, you have to feel that you’re on the same team, ready to face the issue together.
⬜ I’m willing to put the problem in front of us rather than between us (or sliding it toward you).
This takes a step forward from the first check. A problem is not a thing that separates you and the receiver. It’s a challenge that you look at together and find a way through.
⬜ I’m ready to listen, ask questions, and accept that I may not fully understand the issue.
What do you think went wrong? What’s the problem in your mind? Everyone has a different view of what happened. Before assuming you both saw the same situation, find out what the other person experienced from their perspective.
⬜ I’m ready to acknowledge what you do well instead of picking apart your mistakes.
If people feel attacked, they go into defensive mode or shut down entirely. If you pick and poke without also indicating where people shine, you shut down confidence and openness to improve.
⬜ I recognize your strengths and how you can use them to address your challenges.
Everyone has things they do well and areas they feel grounded and confident. Can those strengths shine light on how to fix problem areas? Try something like: “I like how you approached this thing over there, could that work over here, too?” Borrow confidence or aptitude in one domain and apply it to weaker areas.
⬜ I can hold you accountable without shaming or blaming.
It can be uncomfortable to hold people accountable for their behavior or performance. But consistently withholding repercussions only encourages undesired behavior. Even worse, though, is publically pointing the finger or discharging your frustration. This only invites resentment without altering the behavior to improve.
⬜ I am open to owning my part.
Even if you think you had nothing to do with it, you may have played an involuntary role. So, assume you played a part in what happened in some way. Ask what that part was so you can improve too. It also shows you’re vulnerable and demonstrates that mistakes are okay.
⬜ I can genuinely thank someone for their efforts rather than criticize them for their failings.
No one sets out to fail. But sometimes our best efforts still fall short. To be in the right mindset to deliver effective feedback, you have to be able to see the positive, in addition to the things to improve. All of us are more than a single project or point in time. Appreciate the whole person and what they bring.
⬜ I can talk about how resolving these challenges will lead to growth and opportunity.
Feedback is not about pointing out mistakes. The purpose is to help us get better over time. What’s the point of feedback if it doesn’t lead to improvement?
⬜ I can model the vulnerability and openness that I expect to see from you.
You’ve heard it before: lead by example. It’s as simple as that. Show others that you’re open to feedback. Tell stories of times you fell short. If you don’t walk the walk, how can you expect others to listen to your talk?
⬜ I am aware of power dynamics, implicit bias, and stereotypes.
You might think it’s just two people sharing feedback in a room, but there are always identity issues present—race, religion, gender, job title. Be aware of these often unspoken differences. Ask yourself: ‘What assumptions am I bringing to the room?’ And inform yourself about the biases, stereotypes, and other structural issues that are present in every interaction.
That’s 11 guideposts to help you know that you’re ready to give feedback. Note that none of it is about having clear arguments prepared or examples to support your point. It’s about the mindset you bring and the psychological safety you create.
It’s also about realizing what’s going on in the receiver’s mind—fear, defensiveness, embarrassment, imposter feelings—and preparing thoughtful feedback that’s kind and candid.
And don’t let this checklist scare you. You might look at it and think you’re not ready to give feedback. If you can’t check those boxes right now, then wait. But don’t withhold feedback just because it’s difficult.
Not giving feedback when it’s needed is worse than giving bad feedback. It tells the other person that you don’t think they can improve, or that it’s not worth your time to figure out how to deliver it in a constructive, supportive way.
As our CEO talks about: feedback is hard, but when you’re ready, it’s worth it.
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