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The Gift of Giving

The Management Centre

The festive season is upon us and the annual question of gifting etiquette looms ever present. Work colleagues – do you give or not give? How much should you spend? Are you going with silly or serious? Is it appropriate? Phew. What a minefield.

So what can you give that won’t cost you a penny and if done in the right way can be the best gift ever?

The gift of feedback.


At the Management Centre, we know that giving feedback is a big deal. It has a direct impact on motivation, and whether congratulatory or adjusting – it’s one of the most important parts of working life. But it can be scary, and we’ve all had experiences when getting or giving feedback has not been great. I remember a line manager early in my career trying to give me some much-needed feedback on a report I’d written that had been rather sloppy. She couldn’t quite get the words out in a productive way, and ended up eyes-wide and grimacing, saying my work was ‘not just poor, but pretty crap.’ Obviously I wasn’t exactly inspired to do better – and I had no idea how to do better. Giving good, constructive feedback is everyone’s responsibility – especially if you are a manager, or supervising others – and the good news is, there are techniques you can learn to make it more comfortable for everyone involved.

Why is this ‘gift’ so important?

Feedback is the gift that should help someone to: do things differently; change a habit or two; become more self-aware; or understand what they may need to change in order to be more successful. Done well, it’s a very powerful tool.

Consider this: only once you let me know what I need to do differently can I then start to do it – after all (despite my many talents), I’m no mind reader.

How is this gift done well?

Great feedback is:

  • based on observed behaviour – what you have actually seen and what you have actually heard – not what you infer or think was going on. This makes it objective – not subjective
  • specific to a given situation – not a generalisation of things that have happened over time that have led you to a view or opinion about someone
  • balanced in terms of identifying what’s worked and what’s not so worked so well over time.

To be successful at giving feedback you need to use all three principles – and get them all right – which takes practise.

Let’s look at each principle in a bit more detail…

Observable behaviour

This is about what really, physically happened, not what you think happened or what feelings or beliefs you believe underpin someone’s actions. After all, we just don’t know what someone is thinking or feeling (we’re still not mind readers). So when giving feedback we need to give examples of what we have seen or heard.

Maybe you think someone is really disinterested?  Your feedback should focus on example behaviours such as: “I saw in the meeting that you were looking out of the window a lot and didn’t interact with anyone”. Or perhaps if the opposite is true and they seemed very interested: “in the meeting you gave lots of ideas and presented them to others quickly in a way that was easy to understand.”

Outlining the observed behaviour means the receiver is left in no doubt about what was great and should be repeated or what didn’t go down so well and possibly needs to change.  It’s objective, it’s not personal. This is helpful to remember when you are receiving feedback too.  It can make a slightly bitter pill easier to swallow when people realise you are focusing on behaviours (which we can change) and not personality (which we can’t).


Focusing on concrete events or activities is essential so that the recipient knows exactly what was great and should be built upon/repeated or alternatively ought to change. “Good job” or “that wasn’t what I meant” aren’t particularly helpful. However “I loved the pictures you used as they were so relevant and really brought the story to life” or “the pictures were not obviously linked to the topic in the report so didn’t appear as relevant to the reader as they could have” are a lot more specific and in turn helpful.

Balanced feedback

Good feedback can be affirming (encouraging) or adjusting (to affect a change) and it’s crucial that over time people get a mix of the two. It should always lead to a feeling of motivation – not shame. Let’s be clear, there is nothing to be gained – either by you or the person you’re feeding back to – from just telling them off for poor work. Remember, it’s highly unlikely someone intended to do a bad job, and just pointing that out is not going inspire change. On the receiving end, knowing that someone thought you did something badly can make you feel pretty out of sorts. However, when you are told how you could make it (even?) better – well that’s a different story. Therefore, feedback should consist of a balance of the things that have been done well and those that could be done differently, over time.

Training conversation

Practise, practise, practise

Now you’ve got the tools for giving good feedback, the next time you are getting ready to give some, plan it out first, sticking to these principles. Write down what you have seen or heard, have concrete examples ready and make sure that it’s not all good or all bad. Practise saying it out loud to see how it sounds and how it will land. Then when it comes to giving it in real life you’ll make sure that this gift is received with the enthusiasm and appreciation it deserves, not fear and negativity. Go on, give it a go. Maybe it’s even a new year’s resolution in the making?

What’s Next?

On =mc’s Emerging Managers Programme we look at giving feedback in more detail – and you get plenty of chance to practice and hone your skills over the three days. Visit the Emerging Managers Programme webpage to find out more and book on the next public training or bring the programme in-house.

If you’d like to speak to someone about a particular challenge, please call +44 (0)20 7978 1516 or email

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