How To Give Feedback That Will Actually Change Others’ Behavior

Get more of what you want, and less of what you don’t.

I was devastated.

Don’t care?? Really?? You could say a lot of negative things about me, I’d heard many of them already. But… don’t care??

I was in a 1–1 meeting with my boss, still recovering from what I’d just heard.

“When you sit through an entire design review and don’t say anything, then it seems like you just don’t care about the project.”


“But you know I care.” My defenses were up.

“Yes, I know you care. But what about the half dozen other people that only interact with you in those reviews?”

She was right. She knew about the follow-up conversations I had with the review leader to work through issues, but they didn’t. She knew about all the work I’d done with the project leader in advance of the review, but they didn’t. She knew I cared.

But they didn’t.

Great feedback is a mirror.

It helps us see our behavior as others do. Even more importantly, it helps us see the impact that our behavior has on others.

We choose to change our behavior when we understand the impact that it’s having on others, and great feedback shows us that impact.

A simple way to deliver this kind of feedback is to use the When / Then method. It goes like this: “When you [insert behavior], then [insert impact].”

When / Then ties our behavior, which we have control over, directly to the results. Behavior, impact. Cause, effect.

Note that in some of the following examples, the actual words when and then aren’t actually used. The principle is still there, even if the words aren’t.

When you sit through an entire design review without saying anything, then it seems like you don’t care about the project.
When you arrive late to our team meetings, it sends a message that you don’t value our time.
You didn’t get the data turned in on time, and we couldn’t get the report to the customer as we promised.
When you don’t attend mandatory training classes, I have to spend extra time making sure you get the information you need.

It works for positive feedback as well. Want more of a behavior that you’ve seen from someone? Use When / Then to let them know. In fact, start with positive. After several instances (4–6) of positive feedback intended to reinforce a behavior, throw in a negative intended to change a behavior. The person you’re giving the feedback to will be much more likely to listen that way.

Think about it. From your own experience, how do you respond when someone who’s never given you any positive feedback tells you something about you that you should change? Do you listen?

Yeah, me neither.

But when someone who’s told you what they appreciate about you, or the positive impact they’ve noticed you having, or the things that you do well, you build up an affinity for that person. Trust develops. And when they give you negative feedback, you’re more likely to listen, and more likely to take action on the feedback.

Why give positive feedback? So that when you have to give negative, the person will trust you. But that’s not the only reason. It’s also because the person has done something that we want more of.

When you take notes in our staff meeting without me asking you to, it shows how proactive you are and is one less thing I have to be thinking about.

What’s the behavior you want more of? Taking notes. Why will you get more of it? Because you noticed. And the proactive behavior will likely bleed over into other tasks as well.

“I’m proactive!” he’s thinking. “I should find other things to do proactively!”

It’s the closest thing we have to magic in the workplace. Unless you work for David Copperfield. Or Warren Buffett.

I could finally do something about it.

“So, I just need to speak up in design reviews more?”

“Yep, try that.”

I did. And it worked.

The nature of my performance reviews started to change. It was early in my career, but I’d already gotten used to mediocre ratings.

Chris is too passive.
Chris isn’t assertive enough.
Chris is too quiet.

It was all correct. I am passive, non-assertive, and quiet. But that feedback was useless, because in my mind I couldn’t do anything about it. It was me. While you’re at it, you might as well tell me I need to look more like Brad Pitt. Probably ain’t gonna happen.

But suddenly, there was a behavior that I could change. Sitting quietly. Hmm, I can do something about that, can’t I? And I want to. Especially because I know the impact that it’s having.

I’m getting used to different comments in my reviews.

Chris looks for opportunities to get involved.
Chris is a great communicator.
Chris is a natural leader.

Whoa, when did I become a natural leader??

I owe that boss a lot, because it all started with her. Maybe I should give her some feedback.

Like this? Check out more from Management Matters, including this piece by Abhijit Vempati, who started his first successful tech company at the ripe old age of 16: