3 Techniques To Give Direct Feedback At Work


June 15, 2010

Last week, I was flipping through the radio stations as I drove to work.  I landed on a talk radio station, the Cosmo channel, and the guest was the editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan magazine.  Apparently, the editor is also the person who gives workplace advice.  I say apparently because I am not a regular reader or listener.  The conversation caught my attention because the topic was how to give feedback at work.

The example they used was  how to tell a co-worker they are bothering you when they stop to gossip or chat about things at your cube each day. Sometimes, several times a day.  I think we all work with people like this.  You know the ones, the colleagues who always have time to chit-chat when you’re swamped.  What surprised me was that the tactics and advice the editor and the show hosts were giving were all about being indirect.  They were saying you should ask the person to meet you after work to talk, make up false deadlines to get them away from your desk, tell the person you really want to talk to her but that your boss is complaining, etc.  While I understand they were telling us to use indirect feedback and made up stories to save the person’s feelings, I know there are better ways that work and that will not hurt the person any more than the indirect approach.  In fact, the danger of the indirect approaches is that the recipient may never understand there is a problem and the behavior will continue.

So, what can you do?

Be Direct

This is always my preferred approach.  Being direct does not mean intentionally trying to hurt the recipient’s feelings or to be cruel.  Being direct does mean telling the person the truth in such a way that they understand that the behavior they are exhibiting is unacceptable.  In our example above, being direct would your feedback may sound like this:  “Hi Jane.  Listen, I know you enjoy talking about ______(insert whatever topic here).  I do too.  However, when you come by my cube daily and do this, my supervisor notices us talking about it and it gives him the impression I am not working or that I don’t have enough work to do.  I want to maintain a good reputation at work Jane.  So, I will not be able to continue these daily discussions during the work day.  Thank you for understanding.”

Don’t Bring Other People Into It

I hear people use the tactic of bringing other people into giving feedback quite often.  If you are trying to deliver the message above to Jane, for example, it would not be advised to say, “Jane, other people in the office have noticed you chat too much at the cubicles.”  Why not?  Well, even though it sounds like direct feedback on the surface, it is not.  This will immediately send Jane’s mind racing to who the “other people in the office” are.  Now she’s not focused on the feedback you’re about to deliver.  She’s worried about who is talking about her behind her back.  This is the kind of information that causes mistrust in the work group.  If you must bring other people into the discussion, be ready to say who they are.

Use Your Voice/ Don’t Hide Behind E-Mail

If this is the first time the person is going to hear this feedback from you, make sure it is verbal feedback.  In the case of Jane, if you were to just send her an e-mail, it will not have the same impact.  Jane will be surprised and may not interpret the tone of the e-mail in the way you intend.  Jane will also have questions that will certainly lead to follow up e-mails.  By not being direct, either in person or over the phone, you are now setting yourself up for misunderstanding and misinterpretation.

The bottom line is that sometimes, giving direct feedback on a behavior is uncomfortable.  It’s uncomfortable for you and for the person receiving it.  However, if you beat around the bush, try to avoid the person and just hope the behavior stops, e-mail the person only part of the story, or use other indirect tactics, you are doing yourself and them a disservice.  The best way is to be mature, professional, and compassionate.

What do you think?  How would you give feedback in this situation?  What other tactics work for you?  Share them in the comments.


  • Great read Trish! I’m a huge fan of the non-sugar-coating method of communication. I think people are overly concerned with hurting someone’s feelings or being disliked so they’ll talk all around the issue w/out getting their direct point across. If the issue is not handled directly, it will leave the other person a little confused and probably raise more questions. Your approach is the same way that I handle it and I coach others that way. For people who are not used to it, it can take some practice until they get comfortable. I think another good point is to make the conversation “quick and tidy” so that the point is not dragged out and the issue doesn’t appear as a major crisis.

  • I love direct feedback. The piece about use your own voice is key. If giving the direct feedback is difficult for you, say it. They can see in your face that you have good intentions. Email has a way of changing the message, not always for the good.

    Great post Trish!

  • Great post Trish!

    Giving feedback is such an essential skill. There’s two sides to every feedback conversation — the giver and receiver — and it’s important to take them both into account. Some people are great at giving direct feedback in person but they might be talking to a receiver who would actually be much more receptive over email. Kimberly and Chris make good points and definitely sound more like in-person people!

    Two questions on applying these techniques:

    1) How would you handle a situation in which giving the feedback could be detrimental to your job? Let’s say, for example, that the ‘chatty cathy’ in your office is actually the CEO. You know she’s not interrupting you on purpose and really wants to see your results, but you also know that she’s pretty sensitive about personal feedback. How would you handle letting her know?

    2) How would you deal with giving someone feedback you’ve been told by other people about a situation or behavior you didn’t directly witness? Managers are often told about an incident involving different team members and need to get involved but have no first hand experience. Is it better to come right out and tell the receiver that it came from others or to leave it unspoken?


  • I also take the direct method. I’ve got a handful of colleagues who walk into my work area and just start talking. I turn to give them my full attention, smile, and say, “I’m working on a deadline/I’m swamped/Right now is not a good time. Can I catch you later today?”

    I’ve only ever gotten one bad reaction, and that was from a peculiar colleague who does not handle any social interaction well and misses many social cues, so she’s a special case. Everyone else has understood, apologized for interrupting me, and reconnected with me later in the week.

    I think this phenomenon of ‘little white lies’ or avoidance just ends up with more hurt feelings. It seems particularly endemic in workplaces where the majority of employees are women. I’m a woman working in a division that’s 90% female, and I see the avoidance approach backfire often. Why give yourself the hassle?

  • The indirect communication advice given is exactly the absolute worst advice EVER!!! Indirect communication is a recipe for disaster, as the person in question will defnitely have no respect for you after the indirect communication. For any one who is a habitual practitioner of the indirect methods of communication- your co-workers and/or minions are on to you.

    Not wanting to hurt one’s feelings does the exact opposite- it hurts one’s feelings much further than just being direct and to the point.

    • @Douglas- You’re right, it’s much more damaging to use the indirect approach to feedback. Thanks for commenting.

      @CJ- You bring up a great point about people sometimes not picking up on the visual cues. In my HR positions there have been many conversations with employees who think they have made a point with someone only to come back to me and say that the person missed the visual cues. This is when I have been direct and said that THEY needed to be direct. I wonder how many organizations teach their employees how to recognize visual cues/ body language in the workplace. I suspect there are not many. So glad you commented. Thanks.

      @Jay- thanks for asking the additional questions. You’ve just inspired two follow up posts!

      @Chris- I like when you say that they’ll be able to see it in your face that you have good intentions. You’re right. Showing sincerity in your face, body language, and tone of voice will go a long way in acceptance of the message. Great point.

      @Kimberly- Thanks for commenting Kim. You’re right, practice is key. These conversations do get easier over time. I think that is why many HR pros feel comfortable using a direct approach.

  • I really would like to see the follow up posts to Jay’s questions – I need the advice! I got here from the SmartBrief for CFO’s link. Hopefully they will publish the follow up as well! Many thanks.

  • Sorry Trish – I have no idea how “Your comment is awaiting moderation” was included in my post. I enjoyed and agreed with your advice and await more! Thanks!

  • Thanks Trish great post!
    You hit the nail on the head. Courage is needed and there are still many I come across who simply say yes but….
    Your example and “style” example is super.
    It also speaks to getting the right relationship in place and of course knowing that if your job is in jeopardy if you speak “the truth in a respectful way” then it is not a place where you want to be. I also agree that you should not speak for others, unless your job calls for it (H.R. Leader etc) Then you are the voice!

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About Trish

A former HR executive and HCM product leader with over 20 years of experience.


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