Every organization I’ve ever been involved in seems to have the same challenge: no one wants to give each other honest feedback.   When someone’s behavior bothers us, we talk about it around the water cooler, behind the person’s back.  We assume that the person in question already knows that his behavior bothers us and has chosen not to do anything about it; perhaps he is even doing things to annoy us on purpose.  Why?  Because his intentions are bad, of course.  Giving feedback won’t do any good because this person wants to have a negative impact.

When you put it in those terms, the assumptions we make about each other really are silly, aren’t they?

Of course that’s not the only reason we don’t give each other feedback.  It’s also sometimes because we don’t know how to do it without hurting feelings or inviting an uncomfortable confrontation.  We need a model for giving effective feedback that doesn’t ruffle feathers.  Here’s the situation-behavior-impact model:

  • Describe the situation in which the behavior took place

How often do you hear someone say, “You always do that!”  What does “always” mean?  When did I do that exactly?  So for example, “Last week during the staff meeting, you interrupted me in the middle of a sentence.  Today in the staff meeting you did it again.” 

  • Describe the specific behavior that you want to address

Good feedback consists of clear, specific description of the behavior you’re giving feedback about.  It does not consist of your judgements or conclusions about that behavior.  So for example:

“You raised your voice and said that Sally wasn’t getting the job done and you would have to do it yourself” instead of “You were too controlling”.  This works just the same with positive feedback too: “You smiled at everyone and praised them for a job well done” instead of “You’re a good manager”.   “You’re a good manager” makes someone feel good, but it doesn’t really give them any useful information about the behaviors you want to see repeated.  And with negative feedback, it’s critical to be objective and depersonalize the feedback; otherwise, you put people on the defensive and they will stop listening.

  • Describe the impact to you, others, the team or the organization

Why are you describing this behavior?  What negative or positive consequences did it have?  So for example, “That caused us to lose the client” or “That caused Ned to want to stay with the team and work even harder”.

The key to all three steps is specific, objective, non-judgmental description.   When and where did the behavior take place, what did it consist of, and why are you bringing it up?  If you cover these three basics, you’ll have given someone food for thought.  On the other hand if you’re vague about the details, you leave that person free to make up her own story.  “Oh, she must be talking about the time I was late because my mother was sick.  That only happened one time and everyone understood, so that’s no big deal.”  Even worse, if you voice a conclusion, you take the person’s attention off the target and lose any impact you might have.  Now they’re thinking about how to defend themselves instead of about the feedback you just gave them.  “Did she just say that I’m not detail-oriented?  How dare she?  What about the time she turned in that report without waiting for the final numbers and everyone starting reporting the wrong data to our customers?”

You don’t have to be a manager to benefit from mastering the skill of giving good feedback; team members and colleagues need to be able to give each other feedback too.  The model also works well for personal relationships.  Try it next time you need to work through a behavioral problem with your spouse or children!


  1. Steve Blubaugh

    Your description is similar to the form of feedback I have been taught called an “I Message”. With an “I Message” you provide feedback by 1) Identify and describe behavior you want to reinforce; 2) Describe how the behavior makes you feel; 3) Identify and describe the behavior you want to change; and 4) Describe the tangible effect that the behavior has on you, the customer, the organization and/or the employee.

    You begin your feedback by citing a positive behavior you want to reinforce, then, without saying “but” you would add, “my concern is” and complete steps 2, 3 and 4.

  2. Hi Steve,

    Thanks for the comment! I’ve used “I-messages” before also and found them a very effective way to get people to structure their feedback in a way that doesn’t create defensiveness (by avoiding the word “you”, which sounds accusatory).