By Dale S. Rose, Ph.D.

At work, it is often difficult for employees to be completely open and honest with each other. Most difficult of all is providing upward feedback to your direct manager because that power differential is real. When done poorly, telling your manager what you really think can be a very career limiting choice. At the same time, leaders who receive and effectively respond to open honest feedback can significantly improve workplace interactions, enhance teamwork and collaboration, and boost productivity.

But, let’s face it, telling people difficult truths is rarely easy to do.

As a coach, I help leaders from the C-suite look at themselves through the lens of employee feedback and to translate that feedback into better leadership. Every day, I see firsthand how leaders react when they receive honest and sometimes hard to hear 360 Feedback from their employees. Unfortunately, not all the feedback I see is helpful. Sometimes it is counterproductive. When done poorly, feedback can be distracting and derail a leader who gets stuck on a detail and loses the bigger picture. Contrary to popular belief, leaders almost never respond to feedback by seeking retribution. Instead, they typically either dismiss the feedback completely or they are hurt and lose confidence in themselves.

When done well, however, employee feedback can be transformative. Following best practices for 360 Feedback and feedback coaching are essential per-requisites, but in the end it’s the quality of the feedback from employees that really drives change. Time and time again, I’ve seen leaders take useful well-written feedback and radically change their behavior for the better.

All of this begs the question: What does useful feedback look like? These five suggestions will ensure your feedback is likely to result in a positive return on the investment you made telling a leader or a co-worker what you really think about their behavior:

1. Demonstrate Empathy. The golden rule applies to feedback more than most things: Treat others as you would have them treat you. When giving feedback, re-read your message and imagine you were the recipient of the feedback. Would you be open to the suggestions for improvement, or would you become defensive? Would you dismiss the positive feedback as overly ingratiating or would you appreciate the accolades? The bottom line is your feedback should only be focused on helping someone improve. Giving feedback is not a “free shot” to poke at someone and make them feel bad about themselves (even if they are annoying).

2. Suggest Solutions. 3D Group conducted a study many years ago that took a very close look at the quality of open-ended comments in thousands of 360 Feedback reports. Our major conclusion was too often the feedback was weak – most folks tended to identify a problem (like “communication should be better”), but rarely (24 percent of the time, to be precise) identified a clear solution (something like “your e-mails tend to be too long – please shorten them and get to the point quicker”). Providing suggested solutions helps leaders see you are truly invested in their improvement and are not just complaining – remember the purpose of giving feedback is to help leaders improve.

3. Provide Examples. Far too often I hear leaders ask me to clarify a piece of feedback. The best feedback references your observations of specific behaviors based on personal experience. One trick with this is to use first person language when writing feedback. For instance, you might say “In staff meetings I notice you tend to give kudos to the long-tenured staff, but the new staff seem to get ignored. This is awkward and uncomfortable for both groups. Perhaps you could give kudos to everyone on their successes.” The best examples are those that you’ve seen repeated over a long period of time – don’t just give the ones from last week.

4. Highlight Strengths and Improvements. I recently delivered a report to a CEO that had one page of compliments and three pages of improvement suggestions. One of the compliments was: “By far, she’s the strongest CEO I’ve ever worked with” which certainly helped the three pages of medicine go down. I’ve worked with this person for many years, and she is, indeed, very strong, and also exceptionally good at translating feedback into improvements. But a three-to-one ratio of feedback for improvement vs. kudos is tough for anyone to handle. Be balanced in your feedback and help the leader see their successes. This will give them needed confidence to work through the hard parts and the energy needed to make the changes you suggest. Leaders also often don’t realize their strengths – helping them see what they do well is often surprising and motivating to continue their good work.

5. Invite further conversation (if its safe to do so). In a perfect world, we would not need anonymous 360 Feedback surveys to share difficult feedback. The fact is face- to-face feedback is often filtered and watered down. Anonymous surveys can be great tools to allow employees to surface difficult issues in a safe space where a leader will have help in the form of a coach to translate the feedback into changed behavior. In the best cases, leaders can talk with employees after receiving feedback and share their plans for change. Ideally, during the conversation employees can help clarify any questions the leader has about the changes they plan to make. In other words, anonymous feedback is valuable well beyond when the feedback report is delivered – it can be a great way to get a conversation started, even when it’s a little awkward. Research shows leaders are far more likely to change if they follow up with the people who gave them feedback and share their plans to change.

The best feedback helps leaders create positive change – following these steps will increase the chances that the time you spend telling your boss what you really think will result in the changes you hope to see.


Dale S. Rose, Ph.D., is the President and co-founder of 3D Group. He is an expert in leadership development and assessment-based human resources solutions. He recently co-edited The Handbook of Strategic 360 Feedback and authored the study, Current Practices in 360 Feedback, 6th Edition (7th Edition coming Oct 2022)