How to Get your Feedback Right

If you want your feedback to be properly understood and implemented, there are a few rules to follow.

Jürgen wants to cheer up his customer advisor, who is in difficult negotiations with customer X, and says with a pat on the back: "Be more confident!" She first looks at him in confusion and then at the floor, embarrassed. Finally, she stammers: "I'm sorry."

This is not at all the reaction Jürgen was expecting. Now he is also confused and wonders what was wrong. He wanted to cheer up, not criticize. He thinks "I'll just leave it at that" and trots off to his office.

Feedback Is often Misunderstood

We often feel like Jürgen. We give feedback and it is misunderstood. This example shows that even well-intentioned feedback can be completely misunderstood. In the worst-case scenario, as a manager you can jeopardize your relationship with your employees by giving clumsy feedback.

So should we do what Jürgen did and stop giving feedback? Absolutely not! Giving feedback is important and helps organizations move forward. We humans learn from feedback, it can motivate us and help us to better realize our potential.

As a manager, give feedback regularly and not just once a year! We'll tell you how to give feedback properly.

Golden Rules for Constructive Feedback

If you apply the following rules, your feedback will fall on open ears:

  • Be aware of your own motivation for giving feedback. Feedback is not for venting frustration, expressing your opinion or judging someone.
  • Describe your perceptions or observations instead of making assessments, assumptions, speculations, interpretations, moral judgments or threats.
  • Think carefully about what you want to say, formulate it precisely, comprehensibly, concretely and with first-person messages.
  • Your feedback must be factually correct and useful.
  • Limit yourself to a few important points. If you have other points, address them separately later.
  • Focus on the future, not the past.
  • Be respectful and honest and meet your counterpart at eye level.
  • Consider the needs of the recipient appropriately.
  • Address changeable behaviors that your counterpart can influence.
  • If there is reason to do so, give feedback as soon as possible. Note, however, that there are also unfavorable times.
  • Give negative feedback face to face, without other listeners. When giving negative feedback, don't forget to praise what is good.
  • Think about what reactions your feedback could trigger and prepare yourself for them.
  • Make sure that you have been understood correctly. Have an open ear, give the opportunity to answer.
  • Offer support if required.

Avoid these Mistakes

  • Don't assume that you know better. You can be wrong.
  • Don't focus on mistakes.
  • Don't try to manage the other person's emotions. You can save yourself remarks such as "don't be sad" or "don't be angry".
  • Don't pigeonhole people - they and their circumstances change.

Reach Your Goal Quickly with the DEF Rule

Are there too many rules for you? Then we recommend a quick method, the DEF rule. The three letters stand for: describe perception, explain effect, formulate wish.

The application is very simple and can best be illustrated with an example:

Instead of saying "You're going to be late for the meeting again", you say:

  • "I've noticed that you're often a few minutes late for our meetings.
  • That annoys me and makes me feel like the meetings aren't that important to you and you don't care that the others have to wait for you.
  • I hope that we can start our meetings on time in future, thank you."

You will see that in the DEF version, the feedback has a completely different effect!

Consider Feedback as a Suggestion, not a Command

We would like to give you something important to remember at this point: Be aware that the feedback recipients are free to do whatever they want with your feedback. If they take your feedback to heart, then congratulations: you have achieved your goal!

If they throw your feedback to the wind, don't be disappointed. Feedback is not an order. It's up to the recipient what they do with it. But if you use your feedback correctly with the help of our rules, it will have an effect.

Jürgen's Feedback According to the Rules of the Art

I'm sure you would now like to know what Jürgen would have done better if he had known the feedback rules. He would have formulated his feedback like this: "I can see that customer X is causing you difficulties in the negotiations. You're doing a great job. From my point of view, it's perfectly fine for you to represent our position confidently. Please come to me if you get stuck. I'll be happy to give you support."

Jürgen would also no longer simply give up if his feedback triggered a different reaction to the one expected. He would ask specific questions to ensure that his feedback was understood correctly.

What Jürgen can do now, you can do too!


Hansjörg Schmid

Hansjörg Schmid