Common Mistakes Executives And Other Leaders Make When Giving And Receiving Feedback

Ah, the dreaded performance review. Employees and managers alike seem to dread them. Considering most people’s discomfort with giving and receiving feedback, why are companies investing time and money in these reviews?

There are a few reasons why feedback is important. For one, it allows teams to recognize success and to give credit where credit is due. Positive feedback can reinforce helpful behavior in the workplace, making it more likely that employees continue to engage in that behavior. Feedback is also helpful for notifying employees of critical shortcomings, giving them an opportunity to improve. Additionally, consistently providing constructive feedback helps cultivate a growth mindset.

When feedback goes wrong

In recent years, a lot of energy in the business world has been directed toward things like “radical transparency” and “360-degree feedback.” The idea behind this movement is that the more frequent and detailed the feedback, the better the results. While positive and constructive criticism can indeed lead to performance improvement, many people don’t know how to give constructive feedback without putting people on the defensive.

Receiving negative feedback—or even just being told that you will soon receive it—has been shown to trigger a person’s parasympathetic “fight, flight, or freeze” response. This state shuts down parts of the brain associated with learning and is associated with feelings of defensiveness. As you can imagine, such a condition is not conducive to employee well-being or growth.

Fortunately, you can make feedback less threatening by avoiding common feedback pitfalls. Here are some of the mistakes I most often see CEOs, managers, and other leaders make, along with examples of constructive, positive feedback:

Common mistakes leaders make when giving and receiving feedback

Timing it wrong

Your introverted tech support guy might cringe if given praise in public. At the same time, your star sales rep might thrive on it. Be mindful of who is present when feedback is given and how the recipient and their peers might perceive it. It might also be helpful to have a conversation about how feedback should be delivered: “I like having feedback written down in advance so I can think about it first. Is that how you prefer to do it, too?”

Focusing on the negative

Company leaders sometimes assume that they can create success by eliminating “wrong” behaviors. However, there may be a thousand wrong ways to do something and only a few right ways. Save yourself time and frustration by focusing on what goes well so you and others can replicate it.

Being too vague

If you tell your colleague that their client presentation “missed the mark,” what will that accomplish other than putting them on the defensive? If you want someone to change their behavior, you must specify what you’d like to see changed: “I was hoping to see numbers for March. Next time, can you include data from all three months in your quarterly presentation?”

Obsessing about the past

The whole point of feedback is to improve future performance, so dwelling on the past will get you nowhere. Instead, focus on your employee and company’s future: “Our goal is to reduce unnecessary costs by 5% this year, and I know you have your eye on a promotion. Let’s talk about ways we can achieve these goals.”

Tearing people down

You’ll never inspire anyone to do better by crushing their confidence. Rather than focusing on the person who did something wrong, focus on the action itself. At the same time, reassure the feedback recipient that you are on their side: “I have a suggestion for how to handle this differently next time. I know you’re great at taking new ideas and running with them, so I’m sure you’ll have no trouble picking this up.”

Viewing feedback as an insult

Because it can be so uncomfortable to receive feedback, many leaders never solicit feedback from others. Instead of viewing feedback as an insult, try to recognize it for what it truly is: a gift. When someone is honest and brave enough to tell you how they feel about you, it gives you an opportunity to improve your relationships, fine-tune your performance, and advance your career. When you recognize this, giving and receiving feedback becomes a lot less threatening.

Reacting defensively

Imagine your colleague has just told you that they think you’re not working hard enough. If you’ve been taking work home with you every night, this comment might be infuriating. However, if you lash out angrily at your colleague, it is unlikely they will ever give you honest feedback again. Instead, thank them for their perspective and think of ways you may be able to communicate just how hard you’ve been working more effectively.

Taking everything at face value

Many of the things people receive feedback on, including work ethic, friendliness, and attitude, are inherently subjective. If you ask three different people whether you’re a good manager, you may get three different answers depending on their expertise, engagement, and personality. Listening with an open mind while taking everything with a grain of salt is key to receiving feedback effectively.

Making it too formal

If you only give feedback once a year, you miss out on the opportunity to teach people while ideas are still fresh. Instead of waiting, compliment your assistant on her performance right away: “That call was a great example of the patience and helpfulness we want to show our clients. Keep it up!” The same principle applies to receiving feedback. Regularly ask for your team’s reactions to your work to keep the lines of communication open.


As a psychologist who specializes in executive coaching, I help executives become better leaders. If you would like to improve your ability to give and receive feedback, I can help. Visit our executive coaching page for more information. You can also book a free 20-minute consultation call with Dr. Crystal I. Lee.