Traps to Avoid When Giving Constructive Feedback

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Elaine Kamm is a respected leadership development professional with over 20 years in senior management positions in multibillion dollar organizations, with accountabilities in talent identification, succession management, and leadership development. Elaine helps organizations identify and develop leadership talent to ensure that those in critical roles have the skills to match evolving business needs.

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By Elaine Kamm

You don’t have to look far to find a list of techniques and models to help people deliver constructive feedback to others. Yet even when we diligently use these techniques (e.g. describing without attacking, being specific versus vague, pointing out the impact of one’s behavior), we often still find that people’s reaction to our feedback is not what we had hoped for.

Although there are many reasons for unsuccessful feedback attempts, here are 3 commonly overlooked “feedback traps” and how to avoid them.


1. Not giving enough positive feedback in previous situations

If someone feels that the only feedback they get from you is when you’re not happy with their behavior, it’s understandable that they will have an irritated or defensive reaction when you do attempt to give constructive feedback – even if you are doing an outstanding job delivering it! 


  • Make it a point to express your appreciation (authentically, of course) for behaviors and actions of others that you appreciate
  • Provide positive feedback often, taking advantage of informal situations as well as formal.  Don’t wait for a performance review
  • And remember that reinforcing the behaviors you value (with your positive feedback), increases the chances that people will repeat those behaviors again


2. Going too far to soften the blow of constructive criticism

Many people misinterpret or take the “sandwich approach” (putting the constructive feedback in-between positive feedback) too far.  In the attempt to soften the blow of constructive criticism, people often give a long list of praises before delivering their message, and then begin the message they really want to give with the big BUT. There are two serious potential downsides to this approach: Either the BUT invalidates all of the positives that were expressed and that is all the person hears, or the person never really hears the constructive feedback that you delivered because they are still focusing on how great you think they are.   


  • If you are a manager delivering a performance appraisal, conducting a periodic review, or debriefing someone on their performance or skills in a specific situation, it is certainly recommended that you provide both positive and constructive feedback. However, be sure that you structure the discussion in a way that it is very clear what type of feedback is being discussed when
  • If you want to give someone constructive feedback in a specific situation about a specific behavior, it can be very effective to first state a related positive behavior they have demonstrated to help put the constructive feedback into a positive context. Keep it brief so that it does not over-shadow the feedback you want to deliver. (e.g. “One of your great strengths is your results orientation and desire to move quickly. There can also be a flip side to this strength that I noticed in yesterday’s staff meeting which I want to discuss with you… ”)
  • As effective as it can be, do not feel that you must always precede constructive feedback with a positive feedback. If the positive feedback is related to the constructive feedback, this is a good thing.  If it is not, and you are only putting it there to make the person feel better, it is likely to come across at inauthentic or foolish


3. Confusing our own need or concern with a development need in another

This is a common and easy trap to fall into in our daily interactions with others:

  • I’m unable to follow the logic in a presentation you’re delivering and I tell you that your slides are confusing
  • I’m having difficulty working with you on a project because your work style is very spontaneous and casual, and I tell you that you should be more systematic
  • I’m concerned that our customers are over-whelmed by the level of detail you are providing them and I tell you that you are too detail oriented

What I have done in each of these cases, is translate my need or concern into a message that implies that you are wrong or have a problem. It should not come as a surprise if you were to respond defensively or feel unfairly criticized by my accusations.


  • Speak in terms of what you or others need versus implying that someone has a problem
  • Use phrases like: “I’m confused by what you have said. Could you rephrase that for me?”  “Our work styles are very different and I need more structure.” “Your approach is to be very detailed, but the people that we are writing for do not respond well to that approach.”

TAGS: Blogs Elaine Kamm Executive Education Leadership Positive Feedback