Six Tips to Take the “Ack!” Out of Feedback

How to deliver constructive criticism.

January 16, 2024

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Illustration of a bridge split in half, also splitting the word Feedback

Illustration: DaVidRo

How many times have you heard friends complain that after receiving feedback from their boss, they didn’t know what to do next? Or, on the flip side, that the person delivering feedback wasn’t certain how their input was received or whether it would be acted upon? Feedback is important for an employee—or an orchestra member, or an athletic team—in many ways: It’s reassuring for people to know where they stand; it’s necessary for professional growth; and it sets a culture of high performance in the workplace.

But many of us don’t know how to give feedback, says David Dodson, a lecturer in management at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and the author of The Manager’s Handbook. Too often “we kind of wing it,” he said on the Think Fast, Talk Smart podcast. That can make the point of the feedback unclear and lead to miscommunication and hurt feelings. 

Dodson, ’83, MBA ’87, says many of us fail to take the necessary time to prepare constructive feedback. And we put it off because it makes us uncomfortable. Trouble is, that can make our feedback more about us than what the recipient needs to do differently to be successful.

But Dodson believes giving feedback can be a positive experience for all parties. “There’s something very freeing about not wondering what the boss is thinking or ‘What is the boss not telling me?’” he says. For the person delivering the feedback, mindset matters. “Once they understand that your feedback comes from a place of ‘I want you to be the best you can be,’ people invite feedback.”

He shares his six-step framework.

1. Be clear about expectations

Take an employee who has been late closing the monthly books of a company. In this case, Dodson says, the manager might say, “I need the financials delivered to the team in a timely manner so we can use the information to make operational decisions.” It’s important for the person receiving the feedback to understand what is expected of them so that they continue to grow. “You’re not hiring people who will be the same quality five years from now than they are today,” Dodson says. “You’re hiring people who you want to be on an upward-sloping curve. It’s your job as a manager to raise them up and help them become a better team member year after year.”

2. Share how expectations will be measured

This gives the employee clarity and could help them understand the cause of the issue. In the same example, “in a timely manner” could mean different things to different people. Specifying that the financials need to be delivered by the 15th of every month lets the employee know how to succeed. “If you’re not clear on what the measurement is, then you’re leaving it all gray on what your expectations really are,” Dodson says. “Done well, not only does the manager know if it’s working but so, too, will the team member.” 

3. State the problem

Here’s where you say what went wrong. But stick to the facts—for example, the books were closed late last month. “Feedback is not a place where you air your frustrations or criticisms,” Dodson says. And remember that it’s your job to be direct. “If you’re just fretting over how [to] deliver feedback in a way that doesn’t hurt someone’s feelings—that is actually very time-consuming. If you’ve created a culture of radical candor, you don’t have to worry about every little word you say.” 

4. Ask about obstacles

Is there anything preventing the person from completing the task as expected? “By discussing that first, you may learn something you need to know. And secondly, you’ve taken away their ability to walk away saying [that their manager just] doesn’t understand,” Dodson explains.

If the employee brings up obstacles of which the manager is unaware, the manager should take the necessary time to think about the situation. “Thinking on your feet generally is not the path for good decision-making,” Dodson says. 

5. Offer support

It’s possible this person needs some help to accomplish the task or achieve the goal. A manager could ask, “Is there anything I can do?” or “What support can I give you?” The offer should be genuine, and the employee should feel like the manager truly wants to help them succeed.

6. Ensure alignment

Make sure both people are on the same page. (“Are we in agreement that the financials will be delivered by the 15th of every month?”) The employee could push back and say that they want to wait till the 25th because there’s useful information that comes in by then. In such cases, the manager could listen to their points but still make the decision to close the books on the 15th. “So, you’ve dealt with their objection, but you’ve made a decision to adjust what the expectation is or that you don’t agree with them,” he says. “It’s OK for the manager to not always get what they want or for the [employee] to not always get what they want. What’s not OK is not to have alignment.”

This step can be modified when it comes to peer feedback. In such situations, alignment may not be possible, because the receiver doesn’t work for the person giving the feedback. “The difference between peer and manager feedback is that you don’t have authority,” he says. You have to ask them to work with you on the problem.

Dodson says following this framework should help anyone become more comfortable giving feedback and deliver it in just a few minutes with a handful of sentences. But there are additional techniques to consider, such as giving three pieces of positive feedback for every negative one and instilling radical candor as a value. “Explain that you give feedback because you care about them and that not giving feedback is selfish,” he says. “‘I’m going to give you some feedback because I want you to be the very, very best you can be.’”

Kamakshi Ayyar is a writer in the Bay Area. Email her at

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