5 Tips to Give an Executive Feedback


It’s hard to give feedback.

It’s even harder to give feedback to executives.

That’s because executives tend to be intelligent, assertive people - and, personalities aside, they’re people who are in positions of power. They often have control over the careers of the people whose feedback would be valuable, which makes it harder for those people to be honest.

Nobody wants to speak poorly about the person who can give them a raise or send them packing.

But, giving executive feedback is necessary.

A lack of feedback can cause executive performance to stagnate and hinder the success of entire organizations. On the other hand, providing executives with accurate feedback can catalyze growth, allowing them to view their performances through more comprehensive lenses and make positive changes accordingly.

So, how should you give executives feedback?

Obviously, the specifics of appropriate feedback vary based on context, but there are tactics that tend to hold true across situations. While we’ll be approaching this from an HR perspective, many of these approaches work across roles.

With that in mind, here are five tips to giving executives the feedback they need to thrive.

1. Give feedback in real-time, as possible.

Giving feedback in real-time isn’t always possible (or appropriate). You may not be in a position to call out an executive mid-meeting.

But, when it is possible, giving real-time feedback can be very effective. When you give real-time feedback, the noted behavior and its impact are tangible. You can point to a specific action, its consequence, and show how changing the behavior could lead to improvement.

For example: “I noticed that you dismissed Jenna’s input quickly and that after you did, she was hesitant to offer input for the rest of the meeting. If you give her ideas more consideration, she may be open to contributing more, which is important, because we need her expertise on this project going forward.”

Giving feedback quickly in real-time can increase its impact.

2. Be prepared for conflict.

When you provide feedback – whether in the form of real-time conversation or via a performance analysis - be prepared for conflict. Conflict comes quickly in feedback situations because the reality is that most people’s self-concepts don’t align with how others see them.

Interestingly, executives who are high-performers tend to have a lower view of their own performance than others do, while executives who are poor performers tend to view themselves in a better light than others do. But regardless of which end of the spectrum an executive falls on, there is almost always a gap between how other people perceive them and how they perceive themselves.

And that gap gets wider as executives rise through the ranks because the higher up you are on the corporate ladder, the less likely you are to consistently receive accurate feedback.

When you do discuss feedback face-to-face, be prepared to stand your ground and stick to facts and observable examples.

3. Gather feedback from a wide range of perspectives.

If you face conflict in giving executive feedback, it will often be show up as attempts to refute the feedback you’re presenting.

For example: “The people who are giving this feedback are wrong. They don’t have all of the information.” Or, in response to a dissonant 360 result: “There must just be one person who doesn’t like me.”

It’s easier to give feedback when you’re confident that the feedback is accurate. To ensure that’s the case, gather feedback from a wide range of perspectives. This will make the data more viable by softening the effect of outliers. In fact, for a performance analysis, you should exclude outlying data points altogether, and focus on data that’s been reinforced by multiple respondents – 2 to 3 people, at least.

Gathering feedback from a wide range will also offer a more comprehensive look at the performance of the executive. The perspectives of different roles offer different insights; an executive’s peers may believe that she is doing a great job, but her subordinates may note that she is closed-off and distant in meetings.

It’s important to capture viewpoints from all relevant contexts. Doing so makes the data more accurate and the feedback more valuable.

4. Be honest.

This is almost obvious, but it’s important enough to state explicitly.

Don’t present fluff for the sake of avoiding conflict. Don’t shy away from real issues. If you have tough news, deliver it honestly.  Courage is what separates those who provide useful feedback from those who deliver watered down feedback.

Most executives want honest feedback, even if it stings. They want to do their jobs well. So, if you make them aware of an issue that needs to be solved, they’ll appreciate it, because addressing the issue will help them perform at a higher level and help their companies succeed.

Honest feedback may ruffle feathers at first. But in the end, honest feedback is the only kind worth giving.

5. Present negative feedback as a means of improvement, not as a personal indictment.

Being honest doesn’t mean you need to be unnecessarily harsh, though. To make negative feedback more palatable, present negative feedback as a means of improvement, not as a personal indictment.

Making that distinction can be hard. Our identities are so tied to our jobs – our successes and failures in our careers so define our self-concepts – that negative feedback can feel like a personal affront.

Work to combat that perception by delivering feedback from “the same side of the table” as the executive. This means framing an issue in the light of accomplishing shared goals.

Consider the following examples.

Feedback likely to be taken as a personal affront: “Trent, you’re a bad presenter. It’s costing the company because your team doesn’t pay attention to the initiatives you introduce. You need to do better.”

Feedback given as a means of improvement: “Trent, the presentations you’ve been delivering to the team haven’t been engaging. But I know that the objectives you’re outlining are important for your team to understand so that the company can grow. We should take steps to improve your communication skills so that our team and company can thrive.”

Negative feedback shouldn’t be sugarcoated, but it shouldn’t be unnecessarily harsh, either. It should be delivered as a means of improving – not as a personal indictment.

What Comes Next

With feedback given, the next step is to move toward improvement. While the tactics for doing that will vary from situation to situation, we generally follow executive 360 reviews by answering the following questions:

·      What are their strengths in the role?

·      What are the performance gaps?

·      How big is the gap, and is the skill gap coachable?

The answers will give us a clear framework for moving forward and improving. After all, that’s the point of feedback!

Hopefully, these tips are helpful as you give feedback to your executives. Whether you’re considering how to best give executive feedback, seeking objective performance analyses, or looking to improve executive performance in general, we’d love to hear from you.

Looking for help with executive assessment? From Fortune 100 companies to industry-shifting startups, we take pride in helping to analyze and improve executive performance. If you’re looking to help your executives gather feedback and process it in meaningful ways so that they and your company can thrive, get in touch with us.

Because giving good executive feedback is hard. But it’s worth it.

Emily Bermes