How to Inspire Others When You Give Feedback

Imagine how it feels being on MasterChef, as an amateur cook waiting to hear what the food critics will say about your food. You may not be under the TV lights but waiting for feedback when you are doing your day job may feel similar, especially if you have been undertaking a task that is new to you.

Receiving feedback is a regular part of our working lives, yet we often get tense and worry about it before we get into an appraisal meeting. For managers, or others who may be providing the evaluation, breaking through this emotional blockade can be challenging; if this is approached in the wrong way, the goal of the feedback—to improve performance—can be more difficult to achieve.  

Many people consider cutting to the chase to be a virtue, but when providing feedback, it can often be a misstep. If you immediately deliver suggestions for improvement—while your colleague is still in the ‘fight or flight’ section of their emotional Venn diagram—their reaction could be ugly. They could become hypersensitive, perhaps mounting an angry defence that will make them less likely to see the benefits of your advice. Or they could be disheartened and deflated, sinking to a low where they give up all together. Avoid these extremes and other undesirable reactions in between by starting with positives. 

Compliment first. Be uplifting and genuine. Total failure in every aspect of a task is rare; there is almost always some part that is praise-worthy. No matter how small it is, highlight it. I had a maths teacher who had a talent for starting with positives; in one class test I got 29 out of 30 questions incorrect. My teacher, Mr Robertson, said, “Kyle, two things I want to say; firstly, thanks for sitting the test – like I had a choice – and secondly, well done for having the courage to leave an answer for every question.” Before the meeting, I was incredibly anxious because I knew the test was disastrous. But those two compliments (the second more than the first) did relax my mind enough so that I was open to hearing Mr Robertson’s critique. Remember, people can be their own worst critic, so let your colleague acknowledge that they did something well. Compel them to feel valued. This will make them more likely to be open to constructive feedback. From there, your message has more chance of sticking and being acted upon.        

Consider these descriptions of someone’s performance: superb time-management; great productivity; lovely rapport building. They are all great—as headlines. The problem with confining your feedback to these types of phrases is that it does not explain why their time-management was superb, how you are measuring their productivity, or what they did that resulted in their rapport being lovely. If you miss out the detail of why they did well, they can guess exactly what it was they did that was praise-worthy, but they may not guess correctly, and the next evaluation may see you and your colleague wondering why they appear to have gone backwards. Providing detail is a crucial part of ensuring feedback sessions are educational encounters.  

Similarly, when you move on to areas where your colleague needs to improve, avoid broad brushstroke assessments. Without explanatory information, phrases such as your time-management needs to improve, your productivity could be better, and you need to work on your rapport building are of limited use. Much better would be pointing out that taking a few minutes to plan a task rather than jumping straight in will see the task completed in less time, or explaining the metrics used to assess productivity, or stressing the importance of eye contact in meetings.   

When you are giving recommendations, suggest specific tools, activities or habits that will improve work output, and demonstrate these recommendations, perhaps by highlighting examples of others who have used them successfully. You can make this more powerful if you can draw on personal experience. If making one change—for example, making a list of the day’s tasks; tackling the biggest task of the day first; organising files in a particular way—improved your work output massively, explain what you did and how that had a positive impact. If it helps, see yourself as a kind of ‘personal trainer’. In the gym, a trainer often doesn’t just tell you want to do, he or she shows you what to do by performing the exercise themselves. In your case, by reciting or showing what you do to achieve a particular result you lead by example. In turn, inspiring your colleagues to take action. The message – always recommend with demonstration. 

In order, the next time you are delivering feedback compliment first – there is always something positive to find – explain ‘why’ the action is good or bad and lead the way through the power of demonstrating your recommendations. With this approach the person receiving your insightful feedback will know how to move forward and be inspired to achieve more.


Kyle Murtagh is a member of Toastmasters International, a not-for-profit organisation that has provided communication and leadership skills since 1924 through a worldwide network of clubs. There are more than 400 clubs and 10,000 members in the UK and Ireland. Members follow a structured educational programme to gain skills and confidence in public and impromptu speaking, chairing meetings and time management. To find your nearest club, visit