two colleagues make eye contact as they share feedback
Effective feedback shows people how to improve their work. Photo: Paul Clarke for Together London

How to Give Effective Feedback at Work
make it clear & actionable

Do you need to give feedback? Here’s how to make it clear. So people understand how to improve their work.

Jonathan Kahn author photo
Jonathan KahnCommunication Coach Updated: 6 Dec 2023

Do you need to give feedback at work? There’s a simple way to make it useful. Learn to separate observations and evaluations. Once you do this, your feedback will support learning. Instead of feeling awkward. It’s easy to do!

This guide is available as a video (with examples)—watch below. Or scroll down to keep reading.

In this post I’ll show you how to structure your feedback so your colleagues can act on it. We’ll cover:

  1. What effective feedback looks like and why we need it.
  2. How people normally deliver feedback at work.
  3. The fix: separate your observations from evaluations. (Including top tips to make it work.)
  4. How to offer constructive criticism.
  5. Giving positive feedback (not as easy as it sounds!)
  6. Pitfalls to avoid.
  7. An advanced technique: how to share critical feedback.

Effective feedback is one of the core communication skills. And the quickest to learn. You’ll be using this method in the next ten minutes!

What is effective feedback?

Effective feedback shows people how to improve their work. That means:

  • It’s clear: so we understand what you’re telling us, and why.
  • It’s actionable: so we know what changes to make in response.
  • It supports learning: by showing us what works and how to develop our skills.

Why do we need it?

On our own we can’t tell whether our work is effective. We need feedback from other people to understand how it’s coming across.

two colleagues look at a computer to review code
We need constant feedback to learn new skills. Photo: Desola Lanre-Ologun / Unsplash

It’s easy to get lost in the detail. Sometimes you need another perspective to check you’re on the right track. Studies have shown that getting clear, effective feedback is essential to learning. (For example, see The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle). You can’t develop new skills without a constant supply of feedback.

How we normally deliver it

When people give feedback, they tend to mix up two things:

  1. Observations: what we see, hear, or notice. For example, “that presentation was 45 minutes long.”
  2. Evaluations: our judgements, interpretations, or opinions. For example, “that presentation was tedious.”

Here’s an example of feedback that combines observations and evaluations:


Jon, the report you sent me is unprofessional. It wasn’t what I expected and we can’t publish without a rewrite.

a person makes a confused expression
“Unprofessional?” Jon doesn’t appreciate my feedback. (Still from video which you can watch above.)

What’s wrong with this? When we include evaluations in our feedback:

  • They take it personally. If you judge someone’s work, they tend to think you’re judging them. Even if you express it with care. If you tell someone their photo is unexciting, they’ll hear that they’re a bad photographer.
  • They don’t understand why. If you share an opinion without the reasoning that underlies it, people won’t know why you think that. Which can be unnerving, even for positive feedback like, “great job!”
  • They can’t fix their work. It’s difficult to act on an evaluation. You think my report is unprofessional, but you didn’t say why. What is my next step? By the same token, if you say my report is the best you’ve ever seen, how do I reproduce that?

The fix: separate observations and evaluations

The fix is simple: separate your observations from your evaluations!

It’s not that evaluations are bad or incorrect. Your brain judges things all the time, and you can’t stop it. All you can do is notice that you’re doing it. And choose whether to share them.

Ask yourself:

  • is this something I’ve noticed, seen, or heard?
  • or is this my interpretation or judgement of these things?

And then separate the two. Most of the time, our evaluations aren’t useful to others. So we need to do some work. We need to find the observations which they’re based on.

Taking the example above, why do you think I called Jon’s report “unprofessional”? Perhaps the reasons were:

  • he wrote it in Comic Sans 20pt font
  • it had several spelling errors
  • I couldn’t follow the argument

These are observations. If I share these, Jon will understand why I don’t like the report. For example:


Jon, thanks for sending the report. Here’s my feedback. I was surprised to see that you’d written it in a large Comic Sans font. It’s not what I’d expect for an official report. And I also noticed a few spelling errors, have you thought about using the spell check? Finally, I couldn’t follow the argument in the report. Could you please come up with another draft?

Now he knows what changes to make to fix the problem.

Top tips for making observations

Observations come from your perceptions—what you’ve seen, heard or noticed. Leave out judgements, opinions and thoughts.

Try to make them:

  • Narrow, specific and time-limited. The narrower you make your observations, the more effective your feedback. Don’t say, “you’re quiet in meetings”. Reframe as, “in today’s meeting I didn’t hear you speak.”
  • Personal to you. Instead of, “people say you talk too much,” try, “in the last two calls I noticed that you spoke for over 10 minutes.”
  • Free of sweeping statements or labels. Don’t say, “he’s disorganised”, or “they never take a lunch break.” Instead try, “today he couldn’t find the notes,” or “last week I didn’t see them take a break.”
person looks out over a mountain landscape
Observations come from perceptions: what you see and hear. Photo: Elijah Hiett / Unsplash

Imagine you think your colleague isn’t taking credit for their work. You might say:


You’re too modest! You should take more credit.

While your colleague might know what you mean, they could be confused. And by using an evaluation, you’re labelling them as a “modest” person. You don’t need to do this!

Instead, reframe as observations. Write down what you noticed, like:

  • things they said (or didn’t say)
  • when, where, and with whom this happened
  • the impact

Now you can say something like:


Hey, I’ve noticed in team updates this month that you didn’t say anything when Project Z came up. You’re a huge part of that project! I reckon people don’t know all the work you did to make that happen. Why not let them know?

Now they’ll understand why you want them to change their behaviour. And what you think the benefits will be.

Constructive criticism

How can you give constructive criticism that shows people how to improve?

Here’s a formula:

  1. Start with the evaluation(s) in your head.
  2. Identify the observations which they’re based on.
  3. Write down the impact of the behaviour.
  4. Come up with a request: what would you like them to change?
  5. Now share the observations, impact and request.

Let’s try an example. Imagine you’re a line manager. You need to meet one-to-one with your direct reports and give feedback. Sometimes this will be constructive criticism. Things to stop doing or ways to improve.

Two people sit around a table, in discussion
Line managers need to offer constructive criticism. Photo: Christina Morillo / Pexels

Most often your criticism will start out as evaluations in your head. For example:


She’s great at her job, but quiet, which is holding her back.

There’s more than one evaluation here:

  1. great at her job
  2. quiet
  3. the word “but” which suggests “quiet” people aren’t usually “great”

Next we identify the observations which led to these evaluations. For example:

  • In the last quarter, she exceeded all her targets by 10%.
  • During group calls, you’ve only seen her speak when asked question.
  • The next project requires more collaboration.

Let’s use the formula above. Here’s how you would share constructive criticism:


Here’s my feedback. First I’d like to congratulate you on the last quarter. You aced all your targets! There’s also some areas you can work on. In group calls this quarter, I only heard you speak when someone asked you a question. Which means the others don’t know what you’re working on. Since the next project needs more team working, I’d like you to speak up more. What do you think?

Positive feedback

Positive feedback sounds easier to give than critique. Everyone likes to hear they’re doing a good job! But it depends on how you deliver it. If you give someone vague positive feedback, it can be disconcerting:


Jon, that was a great talk! Nice one!

This may worry Jon, because:

  • he doesn’t know why I liked the talk
  • he’s not sure how to reproduce this result
  • what if I don’t like the next talk?

Vague positive feedback tends to include evaluations like “great.” To make it useful we need to reframe as observations. For example:

  • I could follow your argument
  • you kept my attention
  • it was 5 minutes long (for “concise”)
  • it was 30 minutes long (for “thorough”)
  • you answered my questions about the topic

The shortcut: tell people what you noticed and why you liked it.


My top three feedback pitfalls to avoid are:

  1. The sandwich
  2. Bland feedback
  3. Telling people what they are, not what they did

Let’s take each in turn.

The sandwich

This is where you surround negative feedback with two slices of positive feedback. Do not do this! People know you’re doing it, so they ignore the positive parts and focus on the negative.

a person puts their hand on their forehead, closing their eyes
If you sugar-coat negative feedback, people may assume the worst. Photo: Andrea Piacquadio / Pexels

This technique is meant to soften negative feedback. But it has the opposite effect. People assume that your feedback is so serious that it requires sugar coating. They also take it personally, which means they’re less likely to act on it.

Instead, get rid of the fake positive feedback (the slices.) Reframe your negative feedback as observations. Share the impact and come up with a request. Don’t make it sound like a big deal! Give the impression that small tweaks will improve the situation.

Bland feedback

This is where you say something vague, like:

  • nice work
  • that was a good talk
  • you’re a natural

There’s nothing wrong with bland feedback. It doesn’t hurt anyone. But people can’t do anything with it. It’s not useful.

Instead, tell people:

  • why you liked their work
  • what you noticed
  • what effect it had

Telling people what they are

This where you label people instead of pointing out something they did. Instead of telling someone they’re lazy, tell them that they showed up late for the last 3 calls. Now they understand why you’re frustrated.

Advanced technique: critical feedback

For critical feedback you may need a more advanced technique. Separating observations from evaluations is a good start, but it may not be enough:


Jon, at the last three meetings I noticed that you arrived 5-10 minutes late.

This is better than telling him that he’s lazy. But he’s likely to react in a defensive way. While my observation tells him what I noticed, it doesn’t tell him how it affected me. Or what I want him to do about the problem.

For the advanced technique we share four things:

  1. observation
  2. feeling
  3. need (or value)
  4. request

For our example this could be:

  1. you arrived 5-10 minutes late at the last three meetings
  2. I’m frustrated about this
  3. because I need to respect everyone’s time
  4. let’s explore what’s causing this issue

Which would sound like:


Jon, at the last three meetings I noticed that you arrived 5-10 minutes late. I’m frustrated about this because I want to respect everyone’s time. Would you be willing to talk to me about why this happening, so we can resolve the problem?

Using this technique, I’m still criticising Jon’s behaviour. But the structure I’ve used lets me explain why that behaviour is causing a problem. And what I want him to do about it.