August 10, 2017

How to Give Constructive Feedback to a Sensitive Employee

Whether you’re a boss, manager, team member, or a friend, knowing how to give constructive feedback to another person is POWERFUL . . . but tricky. Especially, when the recipient is super sensitive or insecure. So, whether you're praising or criticizing, use these effective techniques to ensure the utmost efficacy of your feedback!

What is Constructive Feedback?

Before you can ever learn how to give constructive feedback, you have to understand what “constructive feedback” actually is . . .

Constructive feedback is information provided to an individual that further develops that person by raising the individual’s awareness of their behavior. In order for feedback to be constructive, it has to be information-specific, issue-focused, based on observations NOT personal feelings, and promote further development.


Source: Harvard Business Review, HBR IdeaCast

Generally, the rule of thumb for feedback is: praise in public and criticize in private.

However, there’s a trick to praising or criticizing constructively and thus, effectively!

How to Give POSITIVE Feedback Effectively

Of the 2 types of feedback, positive or reinforcing feedback is typically the easiest to give. Though, without proper etiquette, you may be “giving” it, but not effectively so it has value.

You see, when positive feedback is vague or general, it usually comes across as disingenuous. Most likely, the recipient will feel like you’re just blowing smoke. But when the feedback is specific and thought-through, it tends to feel more genuine and in turn, more meaningful and impactful. Especially, if the person is insecure or lacking confidence, being specific and authentic with your feedback will help to build trust and achieve the impact intended.

Ultimately, the key to providing positive feedback effectively is specificity and authenticity!

When providing positive feedback:

  • Convey a specific, authentic, and timely message (as close to the event as possible)
  • Acknowledge the specific action or behavior you appreciate
  • Speak to WHY you appreciate the behavior by addressing the specific impact it had on you or the group/organization


Valuable Feedback: “You showed a lot of initiative this morning in calling patients with pending treatment to get the schedule filled after it had fallen apart. We wouldn’t have hit our team’s daily production goal if you hadn’t, so thank you for taking on that task.”

Not Valuable Feedback: “Good job filling the schedule this morning.”

How to Give NEGATIVE Feedback Effectively

Ironically, a lot of the time, the most beneficial feedback (and therefore, in some ways, the most positive) is actually negative feedback. Yet, it’s the scariest to deliver and the hardest to receive.

But here’s something to keep in mind: people want corrective feedback even more than praise if it’s provided in a constructive manner.

In fact, in the Zenger/Folkman assessment of employee attitudes toward “positive” and “corrective” feedback, 72% of employees feel their performance would improve if their managers would provide corrective feedback.

Plus, you might think that the problem you need to address is something the recipient isn’t aware of already. But 73% of the time, your feedback isn’t going to be a surprise. And if you actually talk and work with the individual to come up with a plan to solve the problem, you’ll find that you can come up with a better and more comprehensive plan than you would have on your own.

In the end, the key to providing negative feedback effectively is preparation and compassion!

Here are a few things to consider before giving corrective feedback:

  • What is the objective you want to accomplish?
  • Do you have a track or plan to follow?
  • Have you rehearsed giving the feedback?
  • Where is the best place to give the feedback one-on-one, face-to-face?
  • What is your relationship with the recipient?

Best practices for negative feedback (particularly in sensitive situations):

  • Start key points with “I statements” (e.g. “I noticed,” “I have observed,” “I have a concern about”)
  • Avoid words like “but,” “however,” or “although,” which contradicts everything said before it and sends a mixed message.
  • Use adverbs to focus on behavior by describing the action (“you talked considerably”), rather than adjectives which focus on the person by describing qualities (“you talk too much”).
  • Stick to what you personally saw or heard (“When you dismissed the patient, you didn’t walk him out”). Don’t make any assumptions or interpretations from those observations (“I suppose you treat all patients that way!”).

For the utmost efficacy of your corrective feedback, follow the 5 step method below.

5 Step Method for Providing Negative Feedback:

Step 1: Initiate the feedback in a one-on-one situation.

Clearly state the topic of your feedback. Use a straightforward approach (don’t feed 'em a feedback sandwich), but make an effort to start positive by genuinely highlighting or recognizing good effort.


  • “Megan, Mr. Patient made a comment about your chair-side manner today, specifically that you seemed unhappy. You’re often the one keeping the energy up around here. I’m concerned about . . . ”
  • “Jenny, can I give you some feedback? I noticed that you’ve been impatient with several of the patients today. I’m sure you understand the need to provide a positive patient experience, you’re one of my best hygienists. I want to discuss . . .”

Step 2: Describe the issue & stick to facts, observations, and behavior.

Be as precise, clear, and specific as possible (descriptive NOT accusative). Describe specifically what you have observed and the results or consequences of the person’s behavior. Don’t undermine your message with personal feelings (e.g. anger, frustration, disappointment). Nor personal comments (anything that suggests the issue is a personal characteristic rather than a behavior (which can be changed), such as: “you’re such a complainer” versus “you’ve been complaining”).


  • “I’ve noticed that your workload has been a bit difficult to manage. As a result, our latest marketing campaign was delayed. What do you think about working together on priority planning and organization to prevent future delays?”

Step 3: Give the recipient an opportunity to respond.

Ask for the other person’s point of view and really listen to what they have to say.


  • “How do you think your attitude affects the team?”
  • “How do you feel about your performance?
  • “Did you mean to hurt Ashley’s feelings?
  • “Do you have any ideas why your production has dropped by 10%?

Step 4: Together, come up with an actionable plan.

Discuss ways they could adjust their performance and steps they could take. Offer specific suggestions, if appropriate. Make sure to get their input by asking open-ended questions and waiting patiently for the individual to respond.


  • “What steps do you think you could take to improve your production?”
  • “What could you do to ensure you’re here on time every day?”
  • “How do you think you could positively influence our work environment?”

Step 5: Agree on clear goals or outcomes & follow up.

And depending on the problem, how improvement will be measured. It’s important that you offer your support throughout the entire process, follow up to ensure behavior improves (e.g. return & report, check-in), and recognize achievements in their progress with positive feedback and encouragement.


  • “What goal would you like to set for yourself? . . . Is there anything I can do to help?”
  • “Sara, I noticed that you doubled your confirmed appointments this week, which has positively impacted your assigned metric # of Kept Appointments. It looks like those adjustments we discussed have made a huge difference, great job.”

Effective Communication Skills are Essential for Constructive Feedback!

Now you know how to give constructive feedback, even in sensitive situations.

. . . but how are your communication skills?

You may want to brush up on the top 5 communication skills for workplace and life success:

Click to Beef Up Your Communication Skills With These Effective Techniques

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