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Useful Feedback is Specific

Tip number three (out of the eight I originally outlined) is that to make feedback useful, it needs to be specific and not a vague or absolute statement. It also goes better if you have a specific example to tie it to.

Vague statements

“Great job,” for example, is lovely praise.  And when people do a good job, they should hear it.  But if you can be more specific in your positive feedback and include exactly what the person did that was great, you’re more likely to see that behavior again.

So instead of “great job,” say “Thanks again for typing up the notes from our meeting.  Having those to refer to really saved my butt.” Or "you handled the questions from senior leadership so calmly and efficiently." Or "this report doesn't have a single error in it and I love it!"

I'll reiterate that there's nothing wrong with "great job." But when you're trying to correct behavior (instead of reinforcing it), vague statements won't cut it. Imagine getting the feedback, "You're just not doing it right." Or "you're not strategic enough." Or "that was a disaster." You open the door to two things -- questions about the performance (which you can avoid if you're more specific) and strong feelings from the recipient.

Absolute statements or labels

When we give feedback about how someone always is, it’s tempting to think that strengthens our feedback.  But in reality, when you use an absolute statement, the recipient is furiously searching for the one time that wasn’t true. 

For example, if your feedback is that someone is always late to meetings, the first rebuttal is likely to be, “That’s not true!  I was on time for three meetings last week.”

Instead, you can couch things with “I have seen a tendency” or “I’ve noticed that you’ve been…” and then follow those up with specific examples.

Specific examples

Tying feedback to specific examples also makes you more credible and believable -- it gives your recipient a concrete situation to refer back to. It provides a basis for understanding the context and impact of their actions or behaviors. When you connect your feedback to real situations, it becomes easier for the other person to understand the nuances of your feedback.

Putting this all together might sound like:

  • "I've noticed a pattern recently -- you've been late to a lot of meetings. For example, you arrived more than five minutes late for the last two team meetings and you've been the last to sign on to the project call for the last three calls."

  • "Things seem to be frustrating you a lot lately. Like yesterday, when you got upset in the meeting with Phil, or when you were talking to Pam about the budget, or when Jacob was telling you about the changes to the project. Is everything ok?"

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