Effective Feedback: The Key to Sustained High Performance

Picture yourself bowling and as you release the ball for the first time the lights go out over the pins. You hear the pins falling but can’t see how many you knocked down. Looking around the bowling alley you see no one, so you yell out, “Hey the light are out over the pins and I can’t see how many I knocked down.” A voice out of know where replies, “There are two standing.” You shout, “Which two?” The voice replies “Don’t bother me I am busy, just bowl again.”

Despite the conditions you continue to bowl and when you finish the tenth frame you here the voice say, “I can talk now.” You say, “How did I do?” The voice replies, “Terrible!”

Even if you were a good bowler this wouldn’t be a surprise since you weren’t provided specific feedback. Also, you weren’t permitted to see the results of your actions, and therefore you couldn’t make improvements in your performance. Instead the ineffective feedback evaluated your bowling as terrible. In fact, 50 percent of what appears to be employee motivational problems can be attributed to ineffective feedback provided by 360° reports, peer reviews, and one-on-one sessions.

Three Keys to Effective Feedback

1. Effective Feedback Begins With Discussing Actual Behavior

It is important you describe a person’s specific behavior. Don’t attempt to guess at the “intent” of their behavior. Discuss the actual behavior you saw, heard, or read. You cannot see someone being close-minded or having a bad attitude.

You can’t!! You can see them interrupting others and not allowing them to share their viewpoints. You can see reports with spelling errors. Seeing these behaviors only allows you to draw a conclusion about their attitude. Tell them what you saw, hear or read, not what you concluded and don’t label.

Ineffective: “I’m tired of you being rude. I can’t cover for you any longer.”

More Effective: “Jim, when you talk over others in meetings; when you say you just don’t get it; or when you come late to meetings and leave in the middle…”

Key words: “…When you…”

2. Describe the Impact of the Behavior

Remember that no one ever acts in a way that they believe is unreasonable; their behavior always makes sense to them and sometimes they are genuinely unaware of the negative impact of their behavior. Once you have described what you observed, tell them what you felt or what impact it had on the organization, project, or team. A phrase that captures this thought is, “When you do this, here’s what happens” or, “When you do this, I feel…”

Ineffective: “How come you are always rude to others in meeting?

More Effective: “Jim, when you roll your eyes and talk over others”, here’s what happens. People are unwilling to give their input. You lose opportunities to team with others to improve customer satisfaction. I have to take the time smooth things over, and I feel frustrated.  This will lead me to be more careful when assigning you future assignments.”

Key words: “Here’s what happens…”

3. Discuss Next Steps to Reinforce Correct Behavior

Even with positive feedback, it is most effective to reinforce the continuation of the sought after behavior. Being clear that you want it to continue increases the chances that it will be continued. When the feedback is corrective, it is important the person understands what they did and the impact of their behavior. Once this occurs it is time to work out how to change the behavior in the future. At this point, the person must really own their efforts. If you simply impose a change, they will be less likely to enact the change. Ask open-ended or leading questions to start this process, such as: “What do you think you can do in this area?” “How should we approach this?” “What ideas do you have to improve here?” It is possible that they will have no input, for various reasons. It is still more effective to give them the opportunity once or even twice to identify ways to improve.

Ineffective: “So what you need to do Jim, is no control the meeting? That’s not too much to ask, is it?”

More Effective: “What can you do about this? How can I help you?” “Any thoughts on how you can allow other people to share their ideas?”

Key words: “What can you do about this?” Or, for positive feedback, “Thank you – keep providing the diagrams in your report. The diagrams help me understand your rationale!”


Everyone has blind spots, which can be like bowling in the dark; hence we need timely input from others with the intended purpose of helping us change our behavior and improve performance.

Effective feedback is always about future behavior. It’s NOT about the past, because there’s nothing we can do about the past. We want to get different behavior when it’s for improvement and we want more of the same behavior if it’s positive.

When everyone in your organization views feedback as valuable—whether it’s corrective or complimentary—you’re well on your way toward creating an excellent organization with sustained high performance.


1. Think of the last time you gave someone feedback. Did you judge or evaluate the person? Or did you describe the behavior the person could correct to improve their performance?

2. If you judged or evaluated the person, what behaviors did you observe that led you to this conclusion?

3. Now’s your opportunity to correct the situation. Read the three keys again and use them to create an opportunity to help someone you care about. After all you would appreciate the same treatment.