How to Give Productive Feedback, According to HubSpot Managers & Editors

Have you ever been in a situation where one piece of feedback changed your life? I have! For years, I worked as a full-time employee at startups and tech companies.

Have you ever been in a situation where one piece of feedback changed your life? I have! For years, I worked as a full-time employee at startups and tech companies.

Then, one day, my boss discovered I did a few content marketing side gigs after hours (which wasn’t a secret). Initially, they were worried and asked me to choose between working for them or focusing on freelance work.

After giving it some thought, however, they told me that – from a career stance – it made sense to transition to a full-time content marketing freelancer, as many companies needed these kinds of services and had no one to work with.

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This reassured me that moving to freelancing was right, and I haven’t looked back since.

What I heard that day was productive feedback at its finest. In this article, I’ll tell you what it is, how to share it, and provide examples from managers who offer constructive advice to employees daily.

What is productive feedback?

How to Give Productive Feedback

Productive Feedback Examples.

Giving a High-Performer Productive Feedback

What is productive feedback?

Productive feedback acts as constructive criticism. It’s given to support growth and improvement in a specific area. The productivity aspect suggests that the feedback should be useful, actionable, and motivating.

To ensure the feedback is productive, it should include the following elements.

Specificity

Feedback should focus on specific behaviors or areas. Explain to the feedback recipient exactly what they should do to improve and how they should do it. The comments cannot be vague.

Actionability

Feedback must include clear guidelines, such as practical advice, resources, or examples of the next steps that the person should take to boost their performance.

Positivity

Feedback should be given positively to motivate someone to act rather than bring them down. Make sure to balance suggestions for improvement with someone’s strengths and achievements.

Timelines

Not all types of feedback can wait until an upcoming employee evaluation. ‘Timeliness’ means that the person you’re speaking to can recall the exact situation with details, so they can refer to it or present their perspective.

Relevance

Your feedback should relate to an aspect of their work – goal completion, work quality, or team communication. The employee might be confused if the link between your feedback and their work isn’t unclear.

Openness

Productive feedback isn’t a monologue; it’s a two-way street. Once you share your perspective, it’s important to hear the employee out and discuss how to proceed next.

Constructiveness

When the manager and employee end the discussion, they should feel that the feedback session was constructive and the goal was for the employee to improve their work, not to point out their shortcomings.

How to Give Productive Feedback

Step 1. Be clear on the intent.

While sometimes spontaneous feedback is a good thing, most of the time, it’s better to plan it. Before you approach someone to give them feedback, you must know its purpose. Here are a few questions that you can ask yourself to figure it out:

  • Does your team or company suffer from the behaviors or actions of a specific employee?
  • What mood are you in? Do you feel calm or stressed and angry?
  • Are you in a place where you can give feedback privately so both of you can feel comfortable?
  • Do you know exactly what you’d like to communicate?

Remember that productive feedback should always be helpful and given with empathy and respect. If you’re unsure of your intentions or feeling edgy, it’s best to keep whatever you want to say to yourself.

Step 2. Pick the right time and place.

Timing is crucial when offering productive feedback, as the employee needs to be in the right state of mind and have enough time to hear what you’re saying.

If possible, you should always schedule a meeting. Laura Grant, marketing manager at BlueSky Solutions, suggests having a semi-formal setting. That means the tone should be inclusive but on the formal side.

“You should set aside time for a proper discussion and allow all parties to plan and set objectives,” she says.

Katharina Larikka, performance marketer at Droppe, agrees and adds, “We have seen that most feedback is most productive when the recipient is open to it. In practice, this means sharing it in our quarterly review meetings, when everyone aims to give and receive feedback.”

If feedback needs to be more ad hoc, Larikka’s team asks if it’s a good moment to give feedback before doing so.

“If you want a colleague to improve, the first step is to make sure they hear you, and it’s not going to happen if they are in back-to-back meetings for a day and read your message in between,” Larikka says.

Step 3. Avoid accusations and calmly describe the situation.

The golden rule for offering productive feedback is to come into the meeting with “good faith.” While this applies to the manager and the employee, the former usually runs the meeting and sets the tone.

Since not all feedback meetings come with an agenda, remember that the person receiving feedback might be surprised and might be emotional.

“It is almost impossible to foresee how the recipient will reply. You should attentively observe and listen to their response to comprehend what they heard and how they felt about it,” says John Butterworth, CEO and founder at 10kschools.

If they become emotional, Butterworth says notice it, address it, and let it go before returning to the feedback discussion.

“If they aren’t answering or you feel a deeper issue is at play, ask open-ended questions to clarify,” Butterworth says.

He also points to an important aspect — acknowledging the time employees need to apply improvements.

“Changing behaviors is difficult. Give the receiver ample time, attention, and support. If you notice an improvement, provide positive feedback,” he says. “If there’s no progress, ask them how the action plan is doing and see what else you can do to assist.”

Butterworth does, however, also say that the tone of your feedback should change over time if the performance issues persist.

Step 4. Pause and give them a chance to respond.

After saying everything you wanted, you should give your employee a chance to present their point of view or version of events. You can ask: “What has it been like for you?” or “What do you think happened?”

Mark Damsgaard, founder of Global Residence Index, says constructive criticism becomes productive if you’re coming from a place of concern and genuinely want your employees to be better.

“Listening to their side of the story can help once you have already given the feedback. What was the reason for their errors? Why were they always late recently? Then, actively listening to their side and knowing where they’re coming from would allow you to provide help and suggestions,” Damsgaard says.

Damsgaard notes that these suggestions could make them feel more supported and that your workplace is a safe place.

Damsgaard adds that such an approach makes employees better moving forward. Being able to feel that they’re in a team that supports them encourages them to work harder and better.

You can also allow them to share upward feedback — you might learn about issues that you haven’t been aware of, which addressing will make your collaboration better.

Step 5. Discuss the next steps.

I mentioned that productive feedback should be actionable. That’s why before you end your meeting, you should give your employees a few suggestions on how to improve.

Alternatively, you can ask them if they have any ideas on changing their behaviors or enhancing their performance.

Productive Feedback Examples

Let’s take a look at some real-life examples to get a better understanding of what productive feedback is.

A Personal Story Shared on Quora

The first productive feedback example comes from a Life Coach, Sara Rosseel, who shared her experience on Quora.

In her story, she describes a job working for an international company where she managed several projects in Latin America and the Caribbean. She was the youngest person on the team and was happy to work 50-60 hours a week.

Rosseel says her boss was a “tough-as-nails, no-nonsense woman.”

During her performance review, Rosseel’s manager was concerned that Rosseel wasn’t challenged. Rosseel says she took on routine tasks the project managers didn’t want to handle.

“So, she asked me what kind of work I was most interested in and encouraged me to ask the project managers to get me involved. She explained that the experience would be not only valuable for my future career but also more fulfilling for me,” Rosseel writes.

The manager gave Rosseel her support and a six-month timeline to spread her wings.

“Not every manager in that organization — especially those in senior positions — takes an interest in young junior staff. I consider myself fortunate and since then have had the opportunity to pass on the same advice to others,” Rosseel writes.

What made this productive feedback?

  • First of all, it came from a senior person who had a lot of authority. She took an interest in a junior employee and clearly communicated to Rosseel that she saw a lot of potential in her and wanted to help her spread her wings.
  • The manager used the stick-and-carrot approach – she said that she would help Rosseel in her career development provided that she would give it her best. The manager also proposed a rough deadline (i.e., six months), by which Rosseel had to demonstrate significant improvement. Also, she told her exactly what she should do.
  • Additionally, instead of orchestrating Rosseel’s career, the manager made sure that her advice and career plans were in line with Rosseel’s objectives and aspirations.

Lastly, but most importantly, the feedback recipient considered the advice useful and valuable. Following it allowed Rosseel to progress in her work.

Receiving Productive Feedback – My Own Experience

In a past professional life, I worked as a project manager at a software consultancy. I came to the business with three years of experience in managing a digital product at a startup.

So, while I understood how project management tools like JIRA worked, I only used the tool’s basic functionalities.

However, when I joined the new company, I started managing about four or five projects simultaneously, with 20+ people involved. I quickly found that I needed to customize some of the project boards.

I asked a senior project manager for help, and they showed me how to use advanced rules to adjust the layout and functions to my needs.

The company puts a lot of emphasis on open, productive feedback. So, it wasn’t a surprise that I found a description of this situation in a spreadsheet my manager used to gather feedback for my monthly performance evaluation.

The senior PM mentioned that I wasn’t an experienced project manager yet, so I did not need to know advanced JIRA functionalities at this stage of my career.

But, if I wanted to make this my long-term career path, I would need to become proficient.

The reason why this was such a memorable piece of feedback is that the fellow PM underlined that they didn’t want me to feel like I was underperforming.

They brought this up to give me a heads-up for a skill I would be required to have in, say, six months.

This would give me plenty of time to start learning JIRA at my own pace.

They also made sure to provide a positive review of my ongoing work, which I saw as a nice pat on the back and encouragement to keep going.

Giving a High-Performer Productive Feedback

Know when to step away from the classic “sandwich method.”

In case you’re not familiar with it, the sandwich method is a technique where a piece of constructive criticism is offered between a positive start and an encouraging end of the feedback meeting.

While it’s very popular, some team managers have their own take, including Amit Raj, founder and CEO at The Links Guy.

“I find it effective to start and end the session with genuine appreciation and encouragement but to address areas of improvement in a separate, dedicated conversation. This separates positive reinforcement from constructive criticism, allowing team members to fully absorb both without feeling overwhelmed or confused,” he says.

For instance, Raj once had a team member who struggled with meeting deadlines.

Instead of sandwiching this critique between compliments, he scheduled a separate meeting to discuss time management strategies and provided actionable improvement steps.

“This method helped maintain a positive atmosphere while addressing performance issues constructively, leading to meaningful progress and growth for the individual and the team as a whole,” Raj says.

Choose the communication medium wisely.

Some of us learn from audio or images better, while others are best at synthesizing information in text form. Gary Gray, co-founder and CEO of CouponChief, says that we should also remember this while providing feedback.

In managing a remote team of over 30 employees, Gray found that dispersed team members respond a lot better to feedback when you switch up the mediums and consider their learning styles.

“Some of my team are audio-visual learners, yet others prefer text. So, I use ​​documents, emails, voice notes, and even asynchronous video messages to deliver feedback and give everyone time to digest the information at their own pace,” says Gray.

According to Gray, the company intentionally mixes up these communication mediums and chooses them depending on the context.

For example, he notes that voice notes in tandem with written feedback convey tone and emotion better than text alone. This is beneficial when dealing with sensitive topics or complex ideas.

“All this reduces the chances of misinterpretation while creating a useful reference that we can revisit to reflect on what worked and what didn’t,” Gray says.

Make sure your empathy shines through your conversation.

While managers are responsible for their department’s results, they must also advocate for their team members. This means that they should show empathy to the person they’re speaking to, even if they have a few sharp remarks to share.

Alex Freeburg, managing attorney and founder of Freeburg Law, says that, in his experience, empathy makes all the difference.

“I start by acknowledging an employee’s efforts and where they could use additional support. A simple sentence like, ‘I understand this project has been challenging, and I believe we can make it better together’ is much more powerful than jumping straight into criticism,” Freeburg says.

Through empathy, Freeburg says, you’re more mindful of how your feedback is being received — whether your employees are feeling overwhelmed and if they need some time to grasp what you’ve said.

“Revisiting the conversation allows for processing time and follow-up, helping the feedback process to have a meaningful impact,” Freeburg notes.

Provide the feedback privately.

Picking the right place to give feedback is as important as what you’re going to say. The feedback recipient must feel safe and comfortable; that’s why it’s not recommended to give it in public places.

James Wilkinson, CEO of Balance One Supplements, shares a story on how he gave feedback to an employee after a customer service failure.

Wilkinson recalls a customer service failure when the experience that the client was having was less than stellar.

“I chatted privately with a team member to give him feedback right away and in private,” says Wilkinson. “I shared what was working, broke down the miscommunications, and, together, identified strategies for how we could prevent these in the future.”

Wilkinson notes that the employee was not shamed publicly during the incident.

Instead, “I was also able to educate in more than just mistake-fixing: giving feedback shows your investment in their humanity and their development,” Wilkinson says.

Wilkinson mentioned that good feedback is never just a way to correct mistakes. It also makes the team believe in their potential and capacity to grow, as well as improves team collaboration.

Frame feedback from your own observations and experiences.

Avoid sounding like you are blaming them. You don’t want to antagonize your employees, but simply tell them they should do something different.

Lilia Tovbin, CEO and founder at BigMailer.io says, “Frame feedback from your observations and experiences, which you can achieve using the ‘I’ perspective. This avoids sounding accusatory and allows for a more constructive conversation.”

Tovbin says she recently used this technique while providing feedback to a team member who was constantly late to their virtual meetings.

“Instead of saying, ‘You‘re always late, and it’s disrespectful,’ I approached it by stating, ‘I’ve noticed that our meetings are starting a bit later than scheduled, and it sometimes affects our productivity. Can we discuss how we can ensure everyone is on time for our future meetings?’” she explains.

This approach opened up a dialogue without making the person defensive, allowing for a more positive and productive outcome.

Productive Feedback and Career Growth

Progress isn’t possible without feedback — whether it’s directed at the employee or the manager. The most important thing to remember is that your feedback needs to be actionable and empathetic.

Do the people you speak to know how to proceed? And do you feel that you’ve got their back if they need extra help?

Offering constructive feedback is what characterizes the best managers — those who know how to set expectations, all the while showing their readiness to support their staff in their career growth.

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