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The Give and Take of Employee Feedback

The Give and Take of Employee Feedback

By: Kim Scott and Russ Laraway, co-founders of Candor, Inc.

What’s the most important thing you can do as a boss? In our experience as advisors for many technology companies, it’s knowing how to ask for and offer in person, impromptu, in-the-moment employee feedback. 

Feedback can be daunting, but it’s also very powerful. Ask people what you’re doing wrong. And tell people in person and in the moment what they are doing right -- and what they are doing wrong. Here’s how to start:

Ask for feedback first, and in the right way at the right time

Don’t dish it out before you prove you can take it. Start by asking your direct reports for feedback about you, not the other way around. You can ask for feedback in your one on one conversations, but hold back on giving feedback. 

Remember that one-on-one meetings are primarily for listening. If you walk into a meeting with a list of praise and criticism for somebody, you won’t be in listening mode. Furthermore, if you “save up” feedback for your one-on-one, you won’t be giving it immediately.

These tips will make asking for feedback easier:

Come up with a go-to question. It’s awkward to ask somebody to give you feedback. Awkward for you, and awkward for them. That awkwardness easily becomes an excuse for avoidance. 

Think about the question that you will use to ask somebody for feedback. It can be sweeping: “Is there anything I could do or stop doing that would make it easier to work with me?” Or be more specific: “What could I have done better in that meeting? I’m worried I seemed a bit defensive.”

Embrace the discomfort. The last thing most employees want to do is to give feedback to their boss. Your job is to make it more uncomfortable for them to say nothing than for them to say something. 

Try just asking your question, shutting your mouth, and then counting to six in your head. Almost nobody can endure that long a silence; if you commit to it, you’ll get the chance to hear from your employee.

Listen with the intent to understand. It’s vital not to get defensive. Rather than react to the feedback, check your level of understanding by asking, “Just to make sure I understand right, what I hear you saying is ______.”

Reward the candor. When somebody gives feedback to their boss, they take a risk. It’s your job to make sure there is a payoff. If you agree with the feedback, fix the problem and report back once you’ve done so. If you disagree with the feedback, find that 5% of what was said you do agree with. 

Then, tell them that you’ll think more about what they said and get back to them. A couple days later, do get back. Explain that you really appreciate their point of view. The best way to reward their input is to provide a fuller explanation of why you disagree.

Give feedback next, in the right way and at the right time

Now that you’ve shown that you can take feedback too and that you treat feedback as a two-way street, you’re ready to give it out. 

The best type of feedback is offered in impromptu two-minute conversations in between meetings. Don’t save it up for a 1:1 and certainly not for a performance review. But most people are more afraid of giving feedback than asking for it. 

Here are some tips that will make it easier.

Offer more praise than criticism. It’s important to focus on the good stuff. You’re not firing your whole team, so there are probably more good things than bad things to focus on. 

You’ll all be happier -- and more productive -- if you offer more praise than criticism. But only do it if you really mean it. The purpose of praise is to help people know what to do more of. It’s not to baby their egos.

Be humble. Remember, you may be wrong in your assessment of whatever you’re praising or criticizing. And that’s OK. Omniscience is not a job requirement. When you offer feedback, welcome the other person’s perspective.

Be helpful. You are trying to help people improve and grow. You’re not trying to bust their chops with criticism or patronize with praise. Offer feedback in this spirit.

Give it immediately. Feedback has a short half-life. The sooner you tell someone something is wrong, the faster they can fix it -- or fix your misunderstanding. The sooner you tell somebody something is great, the sooner they can do more of it.

Give it in person. Feedback gets measured at the other person’s ear, not your mouth. The only way to know what is going on is to watch for their reaction because most of communication is non-verbal.

Praise in public, criticize in private. When you praise in public, your words carry more weight. Doing so teaches not just one person -- it instructs everyone what to do more of. When you criticize in private, you reduce the odds of a defensive reaction.

It's not about personality. Give feedback on things that the person can change or do more of, not on fundamental personality attributes which are difficult to change. Remember that the purpose of praise is to show people what to do more of, and the purpose of criticism is to show people what to do better.

Like most things in life, feedback is a matter of give and take. The more impromptu feedback you and your team receive, the more success you will have. Equally as important, the better your relationships at work will be. There is nothing more damaging to your results and your relationships than a failure of feedback.

Watch Kim Scott in action on YouTube: The Surprising Secret to Being a Good Boss

About the Authors

Kim Scott is the co-founder and CEO of Candor, Inc. and author of RADICAL CANDOR: Be a Kickass Boss without Losing Your Humanity (St. Martin’s Press; March 2017). Kim has been a coach to the CEO’s of Dropbox, Qualtrics, Twitter, and several other tech companies. She was a member of the faculty at Apple University and before that led AdSense, YouTube, and DoubleClick Online Sales and Operations at Google.  Previously, Kim was the co-founder and CEO of Juice Software, a collaboration start-up, and led business development at Delta Three and Capital Thinking. Additional information is available at kimmalonescott.com and radicalcandor.com


Russ Laraway is a co-founder of Candor, Inc. Russ has had a diverse 22 year management career. He was a Company Commander in the Marine Corps before starting his first company, Pathfinders. From there Russ went to the Wharton School, and then onto Google and Twitter. Over that span, Russ has managed 700 person teams and $700M businesses facing a vast array leadership challenges along the way.

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