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Here’s how leaders can give actually helpful feedback, step-by-step

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4 September 2023

For many, the phrase “Can I offer you some feedback?” is the brain’s equivalent of footsteps in the night. Our flight or fight response is activated, and an amygdala hijack might lurk nearby. One survey of more than 7,000 leaders found 44% of participants found giving feedback stressful or difficult.

Unfortunately, we are unreliable narrators of the impact of our leadership. Our sense of self-awareness is much higher than others might observe, so gathering feedback is a crucial component for a modern leader to gain insight about how others experience us and test any assumptions we may have of ourselves.

Overcoming a fear of giving and receiving feedback is essential for building self-awareness. Feedback allows us to verify whether the way we might perceive or understand a situation is accurate and allows us to test our assumptions of the impact we are having on others.

Modern leaders offer feedback on the great things being done and don’t just focus on areas needing improvement. To encourage others to be self-aware we fuel a growth mindset and create a safe space for continual improvement.

Building self-awareness through an effective feedback conversation with people you lead becomes a joint process where you can help build self-awareness in others through giving and being open to ongoing feedback yourself. Instead of giving feedback in a formal session once a year, find opportunities to give and receive feedback on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis.

Modern leaders prepare for any feedback conversation in detail, ahead of time. As a leader needing to offer feedback to someone you lead, the following steps will assist in helping even the most challenging conversation go well.



Put yourself in the other person’s shoes and reflect on what might be going on for them. Ask yourself what challenges are they facing right now. What is going well for them? Think about what the person might be feeling anxious about ahead of the conversation, and what support they might need to overcome any challenges they are dealing with. What blind spots do you perceive they may have and how will you address those during the session?

Now reflect on what is going on for you. Ask yourself what you have happening now that might impact this feedback conversation. Are you feeling distracted? Stressed? Angry? If so, should you reschedule the conversation? Reflect on what you think may trigger you in the conversation. What do you know about your relationship with the other person that you should look out for? What is the key message you would like to communicate? What questions can you ask to help guide the person towards the feedback you are going to share, and uncover a solution themselves?

Think about the logistics of how and where the meeting will take place. How do you plan to meet? Will it be in person or virtual? Where possible, avoid email, since providing feedback by email has been shown to be far less successful than meeting in person. Have you given the other person a time to meet and if so, have you allowed enough time for them to prepare?


When you first meet, set the tone for the conversation. Start by letting the other person know you care about them and their success. Let them know you about the work they are doing that you value and reassure them you have confidence in them, and you believe in their abilities. Be sure to reinforce the purpose of feedback is to help them develop and grow.

During the meeting, listen attentively and with care to any issues the person tells you they are having to deal with and let them know you appreciate how frustrating or challenging that issue must be for them. If you can, link the feelings they express to the specific feedback you want to discuss.  

Ask whether they would be willing to work with you on how to best address the situation. Something like, “That sounds difficult. While I know you are doing what you can to manage the issue, would you like to think through this together?” Be sure to ask the person for their vision of success. Ask what outcome they think will be the most successful and help them articulate a vision of success that is positive, clear and meaningful to them.

Be sure to watch for any triggers or potential amygdala hijacks—in the other person and yourself. If the other person becomes upset or defensive, put their care and wellbeing at the center. Ask, “What can I do right now that would be most helpful?”

Finish the conversation by reaffirming your support and asking them what you can do to further help them with this in the future. Take the opportunity to ask the person for any feedback on your leadership or how they felt the conversation went. Listen attentively and thank them for any feedback offered.


Make sure you follow up and acknowledge any positive changes you have noticed or ways in which you may be implementing any feedback suggestions they have made.

Thank the other person for their openness, and invite them to contact you any time in the future with further ideas or feedback.

Kirstin Ferguson is a business leader, company director, keynote speaker, and executive coach.

Edited and printed with the permission of Berrett-Koehler Publishers, from the book Head & Heart: The Art of Modern Leadership by Dr. Kirstin Ferguson, ISBN 978-1523006205, September 5, 2024.

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