The four-step plan to handle staff feedback

feature-employee-thumbI recently shared with the teams of start-up businesses Sneaking Duck and Shoes of Prey some training on giving and receiving staff feedback.


I learned my approach at McKinsey and it has been tremendously useful for me both at work and at home.


In the session I asked, “Who likes to get specific and helpful suggestions to help them work better?” Everyone put up their hands.


But nobody raised their hand when I asked, “Who is entirely comfortable sharing feedback with colleagues?”


I think there is a huge opportunity for start-ups to provide more effective feedback and the model below is aimed at finding and realising this.



Getting the environment right


I’ve learned through my career that feedback only works in an environment where both parties are completely comfortable that mutual improvement is the goal.


As soon as there is any sign of politics, revenge or point-scoring it’s a disaster. Creating this environment takes times and trust – I’ve put below a few key ways to aid this:

  • Be objective – fact-based discussions are less likely to lead to emotive discussions.
  • Be direct – addressing things head-on helps both sides understand what is the issue, rather than ‘hinting’.
  • Avoid defensiveness – rehashing the past often leads to frayed tempers and emotion.
  • Keep specific – if you don’t have specific examples, you perhaps don’t have something useful to share.
  • Lead people through the whole story – don’t start with the solution.
  • Think about the setting – is a public or private forum best?
  • Be considered – it’s probably best to write feedback down ahead of time.


The model


The model that McKinsey taught me works like this:


Step 1: Observation


Giver: Shares a specific observation in a factual, non-emotive, way. It should be sufficiently precise and clear that discussion isn’t necessary.


Receiver: Listens. Calms defensiveness.


Example: “I notice that you have been 15 minutes late to the last three team meetings.”


Step 2: Impact


Giver: Shares a specific, observable impact that is directly related to the action. Again, it should be precise and clear.


Receiver: Listens. Calms defensiveness.


Example: “This has the impact that meetings start late and the rest of the team has to wait when they could be doing other things.”


Step 3: The pause


Giver: Pauses. This is really the most critical step. You’re probably a bit nervous and rushing – you’ve thought about the conversation 100 times, but remember it’s the first time for the other person. Breathe!


Receiver: Clarifying questions, if necessary. The key here is clarifying and ensuring a shared understanding of the observation and the impact.


It’s essential to avoid the traps of explanations, defensiveness or anger. It’s important not to move onto discussion until the issue is clear and agreed.


Step 4: Suggestion and discussion


Giver: Make a clear and specific suggestion as to how to avoid this in the future (or continue if it’s positive feedback!).


This will be just a suggestion. You may not know the whole story, so it’s unlikely you can legislate a solution, even as the boss.


Receiver: Listen, and engage in discussion about how to avoid this in future. Remember, we’ve only got to step four if the observation and impact are agreed.


Example: “One suggestion is to set a 10 minute reminder on your phone.”


At this point, as the feedback giver, you may well learn something you didn’t know that renders your suggestion useless.


For example, perhaps the person’s issue is that their only public transport option doesn’t get them to the office in time and that a better suggestion is to move the meeting.





I have found this approach very useful personally and professionally. After sharing with the team, I got positive feedback. It will be interesting to see how effectively we are able to put it into practice.


What other feedback approaches have you found effective?


Mark Capps is CEO and co-founder of Sneaking Duck, an online marketplace for prescription glasses.


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