How to give feedback when a team member has let you down

By Richard Foster-Fletcher ACB CL, Toastmasters International 

Most people want to do the best work they can and contribute positively to the team. However, occasionally a team member can get things wrong and let you down, big time. As business owners and leaders, when faced with such poor performance, you may just want to put your head in your hands! However, we know we have to speak to the person as soon as possible. This is likely to be a difficult conversation: with awkward explanations, sullen silences, and general ill-will on both sides. And yet, it is important, because when the work is truly dreadful, honest feedback becomes that much more important.

Having managed quite a few teams in my career, I can say that nothing can make these meetings pleasant. However, certain practices are much more effective than others in softening the blow enough that the message sticks, and the person doesn’t feel demoralised. 


Let me share some steps to make the best of the situation:

Give yourself time to control your emotions. I was only half-joking about the head-in-hands part. Terrible work can make you despondent, or angry, or irritated. None of these feelings are conducive to a healthy conversation, and in this situation, you cannot depend on the other person to maintain composure for both of you. So, take a deep breath, relax, make you are in a calm and collected state of mind before you even think of starting a conversation.

Do it right now. Yes, giving largely negative feedback is not something to look forward to. No, delaying it will not make it any better. It’s very human to procrastinate on such tasks, but the sooner you do it, the stronger your case is likely to be. Time has a way of smoothing out the rough edges in people’s memories, so delaying such unpleasant interactions is likely to make the recipient feel they did a better job than they did. Bottom line, get the job done before time causes the impact of it to fade away.

Do it face-to-face. It’s tempting to shoot off an email and be done with it. That way, you can pour all the unpleasant truths into the mail and not have to deal with the consequences. But what is good for you is terrible for the person on the receiving end, who, in addition to being upset and defensive, now probably has several questions but isn’t sure if you would welcome them or not. Emails are already bad at conveying positive emotions, so an email of negative feedback is that much worse.

Do it in private. While there are various schools of thought on this, I strongly believe when the work is truly bad, it makes no sense to chew the person out in front of their peers and make it an exercise in humiliation. Doing it in private allows the recipient to open-up a little more, and thus, be more receptive.

Make a checklist to avoid venting. I’ve been guilty of this before. Instead of discussing the problem, I have slipped into a “feedback loop” where I have gone on at length, attacking the work from various angles but basically saying nothing new and original. Making a small checklist of talking points before the session helps keep me on point and on track.

Identify the root cause. Why do people make mistakes? Especially catastrophic mistakes that make such feedback sessions necessary? In my opinion, it can be boiled down to two things.

  • People care too much i.e. they whip themselves into a frenzy, and thus miss vital details.
  • They don’t care at all and can’t be bothered to do a decent job.

In case of the former, it is important to address their work process and coach them to manage stress and deadlines equally well, while with the latter group, it is the attitude itself that needs to be addressed first.

Give the recipient a chance to speak. Continuing from the point above, once you are done laying out the basic issues and observations, it is best to let the other person speak. They are probably feeling quite defensive at this point, so it is helpful to have them take control of the narrative for the moment and provide their side of it. It makes them feel that you are there not just to criticise, but also listen, and makes a lot of difference on how feedback is perceived.

Discuss the work, not the individual. Keep the conversation and feedback focused on the specific task you are critiquing. This helps avoid anything that might be perceived as a personal attack. The person is probably already feeling a little defensive – commenting on anything else, especially not directly related to the work is going to make them even more so.

Specific problems and specific solutions. From the perspective of the recipient, few things are more infuriating than vague feedback. Try to avoid phrases like “this was quite bad” and “your work was of inadequate quality”. Discuss the work done and point to specific issues that went wrong. Then, discuss how those issues can be resolved. Without a discussion on what can be changed to improve the quality of the work, it is unlikely to be a productive discussion.

Establish a plan to move forward. One of the biggest mistakes I used to make regarding feedback was not deciding on a plan and a calendar date for follow-up. Whether it’s a rework of the original task, or specific measures the recipient should be taking to improve performance – always ensure that the person knows what to do and has some level of accountability after the review.

End with a message of encouragement. Normally, I always end reviews with positive feedback – something the person did right. However, when it comes to truly irredeemable work, that is difficult, and can come off as insincere. In such moments, it is better to end with a statement reaffirming your faith that the person will be able to leave the inferior performance behind and move forward. If possible, reference some past successful project to add heft to your encouragement. Try to ensure the person leaves the review hopeful, and not defeated

Giving feedback is a big responsibility and requires empathy along with clarity.

We need to deliver unwelcome news in a manner and language that helps the recipient, who after all is a team member, to overcome this temporary setback and continue as a productive contributor to your business.


Richard Foster-Fletcher is a member of Toastmasters International, a not-for-profit organisation that has provided communication and leadership skills since 1924 through a worldwide network of clubs. There are more than 400 clubs and 10,000 members in the UK and Ireland. Members follow a structured educational programme to gain skills and confidence in public and impromptu speaking, chairing meetings and time management. To find your nearest club, visit

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