The Magical Secret to Effective Feedback

I sent a particularly dumb email early in my career. Don’t get me wrong, you could probably catch me sending a dumb email in any given week… but this one was particularly dumb. Why? Because I was frustrated about not being included in a group recognition for something, and I let that frustration drive me to click Send. As we all know, you don’t click Send in anger. Especially when the To: line reads CEO.

I wasn’t surprised when my boss asked me to come by his office the next day. He had a classic I-am-not-happy-I’m-about-to-have-this-conversation look on his face. I probably reflected that look. There were some words. Frustration on his part, latent anger masking embarrassment on mine. But then, he took a deep breath and said something powerful:

“When you send an email like that to the CEO, not only does it make you look bad, it makes me look bad and undermines my credibility with the CEO… AND it makes the CEO feel like he screwed up. He didn’t. I did. I missed your name on the list when I put it together in the first place to send to him.”

Well that just hit me right in the feels. I was in the rare situation of actually valuing & liking my boss. And I thought the CEO was a good guy as well. Plus, I’d gotten upset in entirely the wrong direction. I hadn’t stopped to consider the consequences of my action and having them laid out so plainly left me nowhere to hide. It was so effective, I remember the conversation now, over a decade later.

Why was it so effective?

Tailored Consequences

My reaction, the right reaction, was made possible because my boss did two very important things:

  1. He stayed calm & slowed down.
  2. He described consequences I cared about.

I listen better when there’s less emotion in the conversation, people are calm, and the pace is unhurried. He either knew this and adapted his communication style accordingly or his instinct developed from years of management experience sent him down this path. This was critical to making sure I was in the best position to hear what came next.

Second, I’m a “moderate S” and “high C” on the DiSC model. If you check the DiSC chart, you’ll find words like “amiable” and “outgoing,” for the S dimension and “perfectionist,” “accurate,” and “fact-finder” for the C. In summary: I like getting along with people and I really don’t like being wrong.

Now that I was listening, my boss was able to make clear how my actions had damaged my reputation, his reputation, and the rapport he had with the CEO. What’s worse, I’d done it on a fundamentally false premise. Inexcusable!

Make Your Feedback Impactful

Employees have long been clamoring for not only more feedback, but more effective feedback. And yet, managers really struggle with this and with communication in general. kim scott [sic] an advisor & coach for several companies, including Twitter, points to Radical Candor as the secret to being a good boss.

You might read up on this approach and think, “Wow, that’s kind of abrasive.” It can be. In fact, if you’re communicating with a “high D” on the DiSC scale, it probably should be. They’re going to expect fairly direct language to help them realize you’re saying something worth listening to. But always, it has to be delivered with the right heart. It’s not about demoralizing the person you’re talking to. Feedback is not a scolding.


Feedback helps people be more successful going forward.

How Do I Get Started?

One of the most difficult things about doing something differently than you do today is getting started. I’ll caveat the following with a few key points:

  • Thus far we’ve been talking entirely about adjusting (negative? critical?) feedback. There’s positive feedback too.
  • I am terrible with positive feedback. I don’t provide enough of it. So I apologize for my hypocrisy below in advance.
  • Positive feedback differs from praise. Praise is saying “great work!” Feedback is explaining the specifics of what you did, and what great consequences were produced. They’re both valuable.
  • The vast majority of my thinking about feedback comes from Mark and Mike over at Manager Tools (MT).
  • I have no relationship with Manager Tools.

If you want to add feedback to your repertoire but aren’t fully sold that it’s worth it, Consider checking out the Manager Tools Trinity. If you’re convinced of its value…

  1. Dive into the 4-part Feedback Model.
  2. Conflict happens. Read Getting to Yes! if you haven’t.
  3. Practice. Consider attending the Effective Manager Conference.
  4. Keep in mind communications are two-way AND everybody’s different.
  5. Now it’s time to integrate the secret magic with DiSC with feedback.

Still fine-tuning feedback or having trouble? Don’t fret, these tips may help.

Actions have consequences. And when the consequences are undesirable, we typically call these actions, these behaviors, “mistakes.” Feedback provides a way to clarify the relationship between behaviors and consequences without using vague words. This is effective both for positive and for adjusting feedback, both of which are essential for continuously driving improved individual and team performance. After mastering the basics, learning to adjust the consequences you convey to the listener can dramatically improve the impact your feedback has… not only in that moment, but potentially for a recipients whole career.

For more information about feedback, “the management trinity,” and other essential management topics, I strongly encourage you to listen to the Manager Tools podcasts at

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