How To Give Professional Feedback

Providing effective feedback is one of the most challenging responsibilities of managers. Not only do you want to provide feedback that accurately reflects the work situation, but you also want to inspire your team members to improve their performance.

You hope that positive feedback will inspire your team to keep working in the right direction and that negative feedback will encourage change and nurture their professional growth. Unfortunately, those are rare outcomes. Negative feedback especially is often misremembered or dismissed, or can cause someone to lower their commitment to their goals or the team.

The good news is that you can improve your ability to give effective feedback and properly engage your team members. This article walks you through what you need to know about giving professional feedback and how it can help you nurture your team.

The purpose of feedback

You may need to give a team member feedback for a variety of reasons, and we focus on some of the most common professional situations.

  • Improve performance: Letting team members know where their performance falls a little short of expectations can help them focus on those key areas. Feedback can provide direction and help a worker progress toward a particular goal, and also help you pinpoint everyone’s strengths and weaknesses so that you can build on them.
  • Show appreciation: Feedback can also let team members know you appreciate their effort in a particular area. When workers feel appreciated, they might be more motivated to complete team objectives and goals. They’ll also be more inclined to work hard and excel in their positions—boosting team engagement and even helping to improve employee retention.
  • Provide recognition: You can use feedback to recognize the achievements of particular team members. Providing recognition shows you’re paying attention and notice when someone has made a significant contribution.
  • Provide an understanding of the worker’s thought process: Sometimes, poor performance or a lack of team unity happens because team members have different ways of looking at a particular task. Taking the time to provide feedback individually can help you clear up any misunderstandings.

Qualities to have when giving feedback

When giving feedback, you want to approach the situation from a certain perspective and with a certain demeanor. Workers are more likely to listen and respond positively to feedback when it comes from someone they feel respected and valued by. So, focus on cultivating these three characteristics:

  • Credibility. You want to approach feedback by being credible. This means basing your feedback on first-hand evidence, not gossip or rumors. You also need to have an active role in the area where you’re giving feedback. In this way, your feedback is authoritative—without your having to be an authoritarian.
  • Trustworthiness. Always give credit where it’s due. And while no one is perfect, you want to make an effort to do the right thing. Own up to your mistakes, and don’t correct behavior that you yourself sometimes show.
  • Compassion. While you shouldn’t only be compassionate to make giving feedback easier, the reality is that being compassionate does make giving feedback easier. When you have to have difficult conversations, and you start from a place where the other person knows they’re respected and valued, it makes your task easier, and it makes them better able to listen and engage with the feedback.

10 tips on how to give feedback effectively

As you prepare to give feedback, keep these 10 tips in mind. They can make your feedback more effective.


1. Check your motives

Before you move any further with your feedback, make sure you have a clear picture of your motivations. Is it your intention to scold the person, or do you want to help them improve? You’ll accomplish far more when your intention lies more with the latter than the former.  

Research indicates that when people receive negative feedback, it can have the opposite of the desired effect. Rather than encouraging people to try harder, it causes people to rewrite the scenario in their heads.

They might dispute the feedback to themselves and build up their own self-esteem. They might also adjust the feedback in their heads to give it the most positive spin possible. If they can’t do any of the suggested solutions, they might also decide to reduce their commitment to the business. In any of these situations, the feedback will fail to encourage people to improve their performance.

Instead, studies suggest a more productive approach is to look to the future. Rather than dissecting what happened in the past, feedback that looks to see how issues can be addressed in the future helps produce the best response. It’s with this future intent and a desire to help the professional improve moving forward, rather than scolding them for the past, that you’ll want to mold your feedback.

2. Be empathetic

Understand that for many people, receiving feedback can elicit strong emotions. Some people might act defensively or otherwise appear resistant. And as a leader, you want to show sensitivity to these emotions without backing down from your core message.

As you deliver feedback, show your respect for the worker as a person. This respect needs to reflect that you and the organization value this person and want to help them improve their performance moving forward.

This also requires recognizing that sometimes events and situations at or outside work can impact work performance. Instead of focusing on the past, the feedback should look toward the future and the support that can be used to help this professional thrive on future projects.

For example, you can make sure the worker knows you want to discuss some feedback with them and ask for input about the best time to speak. This gives them time to prepare so they don’t feel caught off-guard.

Showing this basic level of respect, that you honor their time, can help set up the conversation on a balanced, positive footing. They’ll feel their contributions are valued at the organization because you sought a time that took their schedule into account. Then, after you deliver feedback, give them space to process everything.

When you speak, avoid having your own frustrations seep into your body language, speech, or tone. Instead, focus on helping them make progress in their role.

3. Be timely

If something happens that needs to be mentioned, don’t wait for a quarterly review or an annual performance review and then provide feedback. By that time, team members have probably moved on. Instead, deliver feedback right away.

Waiting too long can cause your words to lose some of their impact, as your team may no longer have a particular project on their mind. Secondly, any problems that you noticed weeks ago have had time to fester, leading to greater frustration and more entrenched patterns with the specific behavior you want to correct.

You also haven’t fixed the problem in a timely manner. As a manager, the performance of your team will reflect on you. If you need your team to improve their performance, you also need to address these issues quickly. Otherwise, the problem will continue to occur and can impact your own career.

Problems that aren’t addressed in a timely manner can amplify. The one issue causes another issue, which in turn impacts another aspect of team performance. By the time you get to the review after a few weeks or even a few months, the situation has evolved to such a degree that you’ll be dumping a ton of negativity on this unsuspecting person.

Rather than letting problems sit, address issues in real time. If your feedback catches the other person off-guard at a quarterly or annual review, you’ll know something is wrong with your process.

4. Make it frequent

You want to nurture a company culture where people feel supported and appreciated, and in which conversations about performance and improvement are normal. One survey found that 69% of employees reported working harder when they felt appreciated—and that isn’t an unusual statistic.

Rewards and recognition can create an office environment where people feel more inclined to improve their performance.

In that vein, you want to create a culture that celebrates your workforce and what they’ve accomplished. Conversations about what can be improved moving forward happen on a regular basis. These feedback conversations should focus on what the future holds, rather than trying to understand the source of problems in the past.

A model based around asking questions like “Where were you most successful today?” “Where did you struggle today?” “How can we better support you to help you overcome these obstacles moving forward?” can help nurture the supportive, positive culture that you want to create. People are held accountable, feel supported, and know that management appreciates their efforts.  

5. Do it in private

While some people may not mind public recognition or appreciation, no one likes to receive constructive criticism in public. Deliver performance reviews in private, particularly if you need to have a difficult conversation.

To maintain this level of confidentiality, think about how you leave feedback. For example, if you have one Google Doc for everyone on a particular project, leaving critical feedback where everyone else can see won’t be appreciated.

To keep your assessments private, make sure that only you and the recipient have access to the document. Or, if your team is hybrid or remote, write an email so that the worker can digest the information on their own time. You can also speak with them face to face or over video conferencing software in a one-on-one setting.

6. Be specific

Your feedback should also speak to specific instances and provide constructive information about what the person has done or failed to do. Vague expressions, such as “bad work ethic” or “attitude,” do very little to help people adjust their behavior.

Instead, provide specific examples. For example, if you tell someone they need to improve their time management, you might indicate that you want to receive work deliverables consistently throughout the project instead of all at once.

While these concrete examples are important, keep in mind that your goal is to help your team improve moving forward. Even tough discussions of past transgressions can be balanced with a positive view toward the future.

7. Take on one issue, not more

Trying to tackle too many issues at once can quickly overwhelm recipients and make it so that they don’t know where to start first. You also don’t want the worker to feel attacked. Remember the importance of empathy in this conversation.

Instead, select one issue you’d like to improve first. You may discover that several issues are really the same issue manifesting itself in different ways. You might also find that some issues can wait until higher priority needs are addressed. Take the time to sort through the issues in this way so you can focus on one area at a time.

Just remember to choose issues that someone can actually control. External issues that can’t be controlled, such as a shipping delay, shouldn’t be the cause of a poor evaluation. Discussions about how to plan for related issues in the future can be productive, but the importance of recognizing what is and what isn’t within the other person’s control remains critical.

Similarly, make sure reviews center around performance. Don’t try to change someone’s personality—only behaviors that impact the work environment. Encouraging communication between team members and making sure everyone is on the same page is important. But if someone is simply an introvert, their personality shouldn’t become the subject of criticism.

8. Enhance the positives too

You also want to let your team members know when you notice something positive about their performance. This can boost morale and help people feel they’ve contributed something positive to the group.

It also provides workers with a chance to see what it looks like when they excel in their position and experience success. It can help your team form a positive mental model of what you expect of them.

9. Give suggestions

As you provide feedback, you also want to make sure you give specific suggestions about how the person can improve. Remember that your goal when providing feedback is not to scold but instead to help professionals improve at their job and excel on your team.

You can guide your team to create SMART goals related to their feedback and show what reasonable goals might look like. Remember that SMART goals are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant to the problem, and timely. You can then evaluate the worker’s ability to meet those goals at the next performance review.

10. Follow up

Finally, keep the lines of conversation open by following up after the conversation. Remember that your goal with good feedback is to help the professional improve their performance. Doing a check-in a little after the feedback session can help you discuss what the person has done to improve their performance and whether you’ve noticed progress.

It can also let them know you’re there to support them. For example, you might ask how they’re doing, and they may respond that they’re having a roadblock. You can then reply that you’ll work on clearing that roadblock for them.

Reinforce existing strengths and improve performance with effective feedback

Giving useful feedback and following the feedback process described above can go a long way in building a team that performs its best. As you reinforce the strengths of your existing team members and provide them with constructive feedback to help them overcome their struggles, you can create a stronger team.

Another way to tap into specific strengths is to consider hiring freelancers to help flesh out your team. If you’re ready to incorporate freelance services into your organization, see how Upwork makes it easy to get in touch with some of the best professionals on the market.

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How To Give Professional Feedback
The Upwork Team

Upwork is the world’s work marketplace that connects businesses with independent talent from across the globe. We serve everyone from one-person startups to large, Fortune 100 enterprises with a powerful, trust-driven platform that enables companies and talent to work together in new ways that unlock their potential.

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