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Top tips for giving effective feedback

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Leadership Statement
Head shot of Felicity Harvey
Felicity Harvey, Director General for Public and International Health in the Department of Health

When I was asked to lead two sessions at Civil Service Live 2015 on giving clear and honest feedback, I took a trip down memory lane, recalling the feedback I had given and received myself over the years. This reminded me how precious feedback can be – and what a can of worms you may open if you don’t give it enough thought!

In any organisation, it’s vital for managers and leaders to give “clear, honest feedback”. Thinking about the three pillars of the Civil Service Leadership Statement (Inspiring, Confident, Empowering), the one that signifies most to me when I think about giving feedback is "Confident in our engagement".  

It is so important to be confident in the feedback you are giving. If you are confident, you will be clearer, and if you are clearer, the recipient stands a much better chance of acting on what you are telling them, whether it is about making a change or continuing to do something they are doing well.

From my experience, a great deal of that confidence comes from planning the feedback you give, gathering evidence from others, rehearsing the words you will use, and thinking about the reactions you might encounter.

Lost in translation

In the sessions at Civil Service Live, we ran a few exercises on giving feedback, including a mass game of Chinese whispers, to illustrate what can happen when a message is passed through many people. One of my personal tips was that feedback can be lost in translation.

In the interests of embracing modern policy approaches, the two sessions I ran involved ‘crowdsourcing’ tips on giving feedback from audiences in Manchester and London. These added to the wall of tips I had gathered from colleagues in the Department of Health. I wanted to get as many perspectives on giving feedback as possible, to share with others. These tips are available to view here.

Felicity Harvey, right, speaking to a delegate at CS Live, with another perusing notes on a board back left.
Felicity Harvey (right) and delegates at Civil Service Live, with the feedback 'tips wall' in the background

The tips are really interesting, and the fact that most of them come from frontline civil servants makes them really helpful to the work that we do. Some of the key things to take away are:

  • feedback should be timely – constructive feedback has an expiration date; waiting for mid- or end-of-year reviews may be too late
  • remember feedback can be ‘lost in translation’ – cut out the middle-person and deliver feedback direct
  • when giving difficult feedback, make sure you prepare and give examples – evidence is key to making sure feedback is meaningful and constructive
  • follow up the feedback you give, to check that it was helpful
  • ask for feedback on yourself as often as you can - the more you receive, the easier it becomes for you to process it and how to act on it

Phone feedback

Another interesting thought I took away to ponder, was the art of giving feedback on the phone, when your team or customers are working remote from you. The Manchester group were experts in this and gave me plenty of tips, such as:

  • stand up – standing up creates energy in your body and your voice, helping you sound more natural and conversational
  • build in time for a normal conversation to build rapport first – feedback should be upfront and honest, but there’s a fine line between assertive and aggressive; establishing a rapport helps you stay on the right side of that line
  • make the feedback something that people can do something about – that’s why preparation is important, particularly when giving feedback remotely; this may mean you have to provide some kind of tool, information or resource that will enable the recipient to take action
  • think about the impact of what you say – be considerate in what you’re asking or suggesting; during preparation, don’t just consider what you’re going to say, consider its lasting impact, too  for example, on your future working relationship, or the implications for working patterns or work balance in the longer term

I’m looking forward to putting these tips into practice when I give feedback to my own team this year. And I’m looking forward to getting some feedback from them on how well I do!

It goes without saying that I would be delighted if anyone reading this blog would like to suggest their own tips below, or to comment on their experiences of giving or receiving feedback.

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  1. Comment by Angela Jackson posted on

    Judy - Sounds interesting do you have a template ?

  2. Comment by Judy posted on

    Great subject matter.
    A technique/tool that has proved useful for me and many colleagues is a Positive Opportunity Do-Next (POD) approach.
    A six box template that can facilitate a collaborative conversation and help develop self awareness.
    Each person shares their perspective about an event/activity:
    What went well - 1) Observed then 2) observer
    What didn't go as well as planned/hoped - 3) Observed then 4) observer
    What could have been done differently - 5) Both participate
    Explore and capture actions/development activities to develop further or share/coach others - 6) Both participate.

  3. Comment by David posted on

    Thank you for the interesting blog. Giving feedback on how people might do better can feel like conflict. But if you assume that everyone wants to do well, and wants to know if/when they're not, then that sense of conflict disappears - you are helping them to be better, and that's good. I hope that's not too cheesy for a comment.

  4. Comment by Si posted on

    I would just like to thank Felicity for her replies to posts that have been reading on here. at last someone that does listen and respond on these blogs. much appreciated!

  5. Comment by Nick posted on

  6. Comment by Felicity Harvey posted on

    Hello Mark, I absolutely consider the comments given here as feedback, and they show a need to explore these issues further. I regularly hold discussion forums within my Directorate and am going to suggest that these groups explore their own experiences of feedback and explore if and how the culture of giving feedback varies across DH, and how we vary compared to other departments and organisations. Of course, this is by no means an issue just for colleagues in DH and I would encourage other staff networks to focus on this issue as well.

  7. Comment by Alex posted on

    What was 'feedback' called before it was called 'feedback'?

  8. Comment by BJ posted on

    You need to give feedback on your manager to the manager above your manager. Then that manager should give feedback to your manager.
    It means you having to 'interact' with your manager and your manager's manager, and your manager's manager having to 'interact' with your manager and you.

  9. Comment by Mark posted on


    Can I disagree with you, almost totally.

    One of the major problems with 'Feedback' is that it almost always sounds false and contrived.
    Personally, I find it a lot easier to just say, 'what a good idea', or to respond to an email and say thank you, and do it spontaneously.

    And I certainly find the idea of creating 'small talk' first to create rapport rather repugnant. This just feels false.

    Maybe I'm just lucky, I've had a life time (before joining the CS) of having to deal with potentially difficult situations, and have the confidence to be spontaneous, but have considered the implications in the moment. Maybe that is why I can detect - what comes across as - false praise so easily.

    And in all honesty, given the pressures we are all under, the feedback 'tips wall' sounds very contrived. While any attempt to improve skills and knowledge is good, perhaps the real truth is that the wrong people are in the wrong jobs. But, hey, maybe that is an obvious consequence of doing away with HR and making everyone responsible for line management, instead of concentrating on their job.

    • Replies to Mark>

      Comment by Felicity Harvey posted on

      Hi Mark, yes of course you can disagree! It's great that you make time to give feedback spontaneously and I agree that it is good to simply respond in the moment to people. However, that isn't always possible due to location or time, or simply the scale of the organisation and the number of people we wish to share our thoughts with. Personally, I like to respond in the moment when things go well, and I find these small and instant pieces of feedback (yes feedback!) personally motivating. However, sometimes I also want more time to consider behaviour and performance over a period of time, and in these occasions a more prepared and thoughtful approach to giving feedback works for me.

  10. Comment by Jen posted on

    It is difficult to give feedback in an upwards direction, rather like pushing the proverbial piece of string. I feel that feedback relating to managers is seen as criticism rather than critique and would affect my 'behaviours' PMR rating i.e. negative behaviour. There does not seem to be any fair opportunity to give such feedback without reprisals, even in so-called anonymous staff questionnaires. Far better just observe and say nothing.
    By the way - 'crowdsourced'? Is that an actual word?

    • Replies to Jen>

      Comment by Jacqui posted on

      Apparently it is a word !! Better than acronyms though.

  11. Comment by Julie posted on

    The tips are very useful but I found the bright pink page headers a bit distracting - may give some people a headache!

  12. Comment by Danielle posted on

    I came into the civil service from the private sector and I'm shocked by how rare it is for people in the two civil service departments I have worked at to ask for feedback. I regularly ask for feedback as it was drilled into me as important for myself, my colleagues and the company to develop and improve. Yet, no-one asks for feedback in return. Too often I've seen bad managers in the civil service be allowed to continue in their roles, despite not having the necessary qualities, simply because there is no culture of regular upwards feedback.

    • Replies to Danielle>

      Comment by Felicity Harvey posted on

      Afternoon, Danielle - it sounds like you might have some extra tips to share on giving effective feedback from your experiences in the private sector. I'm sure that I and others would be really interested in hearing these.

  13. Comment by Neil posted on

    The only experience of feedback I have seen that it's makes a good officer bad and bad officer worse, the reason behind this it's mainly been seen as a stick and not the carrot. So I take feedback as a pinch of salt most times. My main experience of it has been mainly bad. I am not saying it's all bad there maybe good out there somewhere.

  14. Comment by Steph posted on

    I have had some recent feedback from a senior manager which I am going to use to improve my interview technique. The feedback was positive and constructive and delivered in a friendly but fair way. I felt very disappointed after being turned down for the position but I feel that with the insight into how I come across, I can make some really positive changes to enhance my chances next time - whether here or outside of my current employer.

  15. Comment by Mark posted on

    Bearing in mind that:-

    "constructive feedback has an expiration date"

    If a serving Civil Servant has an interview, and is informed that they have been unsuccessful, how soon should feedback be provided as to their interview performance?

  16. Comment by Paul Harcombe posted on

    how about when hundreds of people, over a number of years, repeatedly give the same feedback and nothing changes for the better (pay and conditions and the reporting system to name but two areas), do you expect engagement to go up or go down? what point feedback on other issues then?

    • Replies to Paul Harcombe>

      Comment by Mark posted on

      Very good point Paul,
      With all the new Blogs out there, I don't see any SCS taking any notice what-so-ever of the comments that are made in response to their posts.
      So lets test it:
      Felicity, please regard all these responses to your blog as Feedback.
      I am standing up as I type this, if you think that helps.
      Are you able to give any demonstration that you will take any notice of the Feedback you are getting?

      • Replies to Mark>

        Comment by Blog team posted on

        Thanks all for your comments. We have passed them on to Felicity.

        We do feed comments back to all our blog authors and encourage them to respond as a matter of course.

  17. Comment by Rebecca posted on


    I understand you may be familiar with the game as 'Chinese whispers', however this is a name based on the racist idea that Chinese-English accents are confusing/hard to understand. It's more commonly referred to these days as Mixed Messages.

  18. Comment by Julia Rabbitts posted on

    I've come from HMRC to another department and found the change in emphasis on feedback intriging. Certainly in my old HMRC office feedback was regarded as essential and many staff expected to ask for and provide feedback whenever they worked with a colleague. I learnt that both asking for and giving feedback requires thought; what are you asking for feedback on, and what are you already aware of (what you thought was a problem might not be for everyone else); what was the conext of the work on which you are providing feedback, are you expecting the person to be the perfect civil servant or a human being who can improve. You know you're getting it right when you get good feedback on your feedback. Well received feedback doesn't have to be positive, but it does have to be thoughtful, fair, just and clear.

    • Replies to Julia Rabbitts>

      Comment by Felicity Harvey posted on

      Julia, thank you for your comment. I completely agree and I know from moving around myself that the culture of giving feedback can vary quite a lot between teams, or directorates or departments. It's great that you see the importance and take it seriously.

  19. Comment by Errant feedback posted on

    I think you mean "arrant" nonsense?

  20. Comment by Knulp posted on

    Three Pillars Of The Civil Service, Leadership the Duck stops here,Feedback Tips Wall ! Yet again more errant nonsense and meaningless buzz words!