Sarah Schott is chief compliance officer at Northwestern Mutual. Sarah is passionate about leadership and helping women grow their careers.


As a manager, I used to hate giving critical feedback. In fact, early in my career, I avoided doing it. At first, it seemed like it might be easier to say nothing rather than have a confrontation, but it meant that things that were bothering me or that prevented me or my team from doing our best work didn’t change. I realized I needed to speak up.

That said, one of the first times I gave critical feedback, I did a pretty horrible job. I told an employee I thought she was intentionally keeping me out of the loop of work she was doing. She left the conversation hurt and confused. Here’s what I learned from that experience, and many others that followed.

  1. BE CLEAR ABOUT YOUR INTENT

    Your goal in giving critical feedback is to help that person. Say that to him or her. For instance, part of the feedback that I could have given to the employee who was keeping me out of the loop was that I wanted to help her understand some of the business and people dynamics in her work — she was new to the company — but I couldn’t do that if she wasn’t communicating to me about her work. Ultimately, my goal was to help her do her job better.

  2. HAVE EXAMPLES

    Having specific examples is really important. What I should have said in my first feedback conversation was that I wanted her to point out which pieces of her work were most important for me to know about. Specifically, there had been times when I felt like I didn’t have the right information during conversations with executives. Giving her specific examples of the type of information I needed and how it would have been impactful could have helped her understand how she could help solve the problem.

  3. GET THE OTHER PERSON'S PERSPECTIVE

    This shouldn’t be a one-way conversation. Give the other person an opportunity to weigh in with his or her perspective.

    “One of the first times I gave critical feedback, I did a pretty horrible job.”

    If the feedback you're giving is based on what someone else experienced or observed, make sure you fully understand the facts before you share the feedback with your co-worker. Also recognize that if the feedback is secondhand, it’s possible that the other party’s recollection of what happened won’t be perfect.

    If the feedback was about the quality of work or a particular project, ask your co-worker to explain their thought process and what he or she was trying to accomplish. Understanding their perspective of what happened can help you better frame your feedback.

  4. DON'T FORCE AN IMMEDIATE OUTCOME

    Ultimately, you need to figure out how to move forward. But you should respect that your employee may not be able or willing to discuss that right away. I typically ask if someone would like some time to digest our discussion before talking about next steps. If the answer is yes, set a follow up meeting.

  5. DON'T EXPECT PERFECTION ON YOUR PART

    After the meeting, you'll no doubt relive parts of the conversation in your mind. Try not to overanalyze your performance. And remember, you'll always have an opportunity to follow up if you think you could have communicated something more clearly. I’m good friends today with the employee who I thought was keeping me out of the loop.

    Ultimately, as you move forward, remember to give positive feedback as you see the person making changes. I make a point to look for any opportunity to say “thank you” for work well done. I find that when something is praised, it will be repeated.

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