Why Leaders Give Feedback

This is a guest blog post by Markus van Alphen.  

An important task you have as a leader is giving feedback. Not only in terms of task performance (so that the other knows how he or she is doing), but also in terms of social behavior. This article is about just that: giving feedback on someone’s behavior with the intention that the other actually does something with that feedback. In other words, you give feedback because you would like to see different behavior. In a previous post, we looked at the difference between compliments, criticism and feedback. We now deal with the rules you should follow in order to increase the chance that your feedback will lead to desired results.

Feedback Is About Behavior That Can Be Modified

The term feedback stems from General Systems Theory, where it means that the output (or result) of a system is fed back to the input, with the objective being to maintain or change that output. In communication theory, feedback means telling someone what the effect of their behavior is, in order that they can change it. Feedback is about behavior that can be changed. It is different from criticism, in that the person receiving the feedback is actually able to do something with it. Feedback in its simplest form is nothing other than giving someone a tip, a suggestion how to handle something differently. In its most complicated form it is an observation on the effects of certain behavior and a suggestion as to what alternative behavior would be preferred.

Feedback Is Used To Elicit Different Behavior

There are three main reasons to give feedback: A tip may be given simply to help the other person; another may ask you for feedback, or you can give feedback so that the other will change their behavior. Even when giving another person a tip, as a leader you will often do so because you want them to do something differently. So, other than when someone specifically asks for feedback, you generally give it for your own reasons – you want the other to behave in such a way that you or your organization benefits (or is disturbed less). In that sense it is a special form of making a request. So, before even thinking of giving feedback, it is good practice to consider what you want from the other, why you want that, and whether it is realistic and acceptable to expect this of them. This because there is little point to giving feedback when you up-front know the other isn’t going to do anything with it. In that case some other intervention is more appropriate.

The Best Way To Give Feedback

What, then, is an effective way to give feedback? Here are some general rules to raise the probability that the other will actually (attempt to) autonomously change their behavior:

  • Face-to-face, alone: Especially when feedback is unsolicited, it isn’t given publicly but privately. This may mean you need to create an opportunity in which feedback can be given. Usually a simple invitation will suffice, such as: ‘May I have a word with you?’, ‘Do you have a minute for me?’ or ‘When could I speak with you privately?


  • Introduce the goal: Without beating about the bush, briefly state the purpose, for example with: ‘I would like to speak with you about something I have noticed / something that bothers me / something I don’t appreciate’. By being direct and transparent, you are being forthcoming and genuine. Suppress the desire to begin with something positive or a compliment, as the receiver will already anticipate what is about to happen. They are waiting for the ‘… but …’ and will interpret the compliment as a trick. It isn’t a compliment at all (everything before the word ‘but’ may be erased), rather a devious way to introduce something negative.


  • Recent behavior: Let bygones be bygones. It is easier to remember something that happened today or yesterday than something that happened last week. If the other cannot even remember exactly what happened, chances are your message won’t come across. Also, stick to that one recent event and don’t drag in the past using all the previous occasions and examples as ammunition. Doing that will probably lead to a discussion, meaning that the essence (that which you would like the other to change) is left untouched.


  • Concrete behavior: What did the other do exactly? You will need to spell this out in terms of concrete behavior. ‘How you behaved towards your colleague’ or ‘The way you dealt with that client’, are far from concrete: What do you mean by these statements? Better are: ‘You were gossiping about your colleague at the coffee machine’ or ‘You repeatedly interrupted the client whilst he was speaking’.


  • The effect of current behavior on you in the I-form: Behavior has an effect on a person, and it is a good strategy to mention how another’s behavior affects you, using the I-form. It sets a general tone: It is difficult to question another’s feeling. This reduces the chance the other will get defensive and start a discussion. When I say, ‘It makes me feel uncomfortable’ then most people will intuitively know that saying ‘No, it doesn’t’ isn’t really an appropriate retort. Even in your position as leader it is better to stick with your own personal experience (‘I feel very uncomfortable when clients are treated disrespectfully’, for example) than refer to the effect of the behavior on others.


  • Offer alternatives: In terms of concrete, executable and desirable behavior, even if it is only one alternative, the other can at least choose to continue their behavior without change (in which case another intervention might be needed later on) or try the alternative. This is also the essential ingredient of feedback: Letting the other know what you do want or would rather see.


  • Short and sweet: Your message and your wish come across strongest when you don’t beat about the bush, but stick to the core issue. You weaken your message (and the other’s willingness to do something about it) by bringing in several arguments as ammunition (such as why you are justified in expecting this). You already have given your strongest argument when you say what the effect of their behavior is on you.


  • Ask for willingness: The other’s willingness to change something in their behavior increases when you explicitly ask: ‘Would you do that for me?’ This is for two reasons: Firstly, most people find it difficult to turn down a request for help, more so than any other kind of request. Secondly, by not explicitly asking, the other could see your message as nothing more than a comment in passing, and won’t feel any urgency to act on it. When the other says they will do something (or try to do something), the chances become greater that they will actually do what they have promised.


  • Listen to the reaction: The last step is to be quiet, listen to any reaction the other may give, and if at all possible leave the choice up to them. When people are given the opportunity to make their own decisions, they feel in control, that their opinion counts and that they are taken seriously. By formulating feedback as a choice rather than a demand, you give them the power to act as capable, independent individuals. A self-made choice is far more likely to lead to them to actually follow through on that choice.

Feedback needs to be given in the correct dosage, meaning taking the other’s resilience into account. Extensive feedback using the rules above is effective when used occasionally and for meaningful issues; it certainly shouldn’t be used for every triviality.

Others can also give you feedback, regardless of whether or not you ask them for it. Even if they do or don’t follow the rules for giving feedback, if they address behavior you could change, then the best strategy is to thank them for their input or (at the least) tell them you will think about it. If you do decide to do something differently, you do the other more than justice by telling them what you did with their feedback. Whether you like it or not, as a leader you are a role model. The message you give is that it isn’t a bad thing when someone calls you on your behavior, and that everyone is in a position to change something in their behavior.

Just like receiving compliments, receiving feedback also requires certain skills. Firstly: Feedback shouldn’t be taken personally. You may assume the other has something to say about how you do something, not about you as a person. So it is good practice to suppress the tendency to get defensive. If you are only thinking up arguments why the feedback is unjust, you’re missing an important opportunity: The other is making an effort to offer you alternatives. Maybe those alternatives will work, maybe they won’t, but you will only know if you know what they are and try them out. That is why it is better to listen attentively and direct your attention to what you can do differently. In other words, take advantage of the alternatives offered you. It is also a sign of respect to thank the giver of feedback.

To recapitulate: Criticism usually disrupts in a negative way, largely as the receiver cannot do very much with it or about it. Feedback is a way to make wishes known in such a manner that the chance of the receiver being able to do something with it increases. The main characteristics of feedback are that concrete behavior is described and that specific, realistic and desired alternatives are suggested. If at all possible it is then left up to the receiver whether they actually want to do something with this feedback.

What is the most constructive feedback you have ever been given?
A version of this post originally ran on the Lead Change Group site on June 29, 2017.

A Summer at the EPA by Cindy Asano

This past summer, I was blessed with the opportunity of interning at the Environmental Protection Agency’s (E.P.A.) headquarters. Going into the internship, I had no idea what to expect. I remember the nervous excitement I felt as I carefully picked out the suit I would wear the night before my internship (which I had borrowed from my mom), and repeatedly checked my alarm clock three dozen times before bed to ensure I wouldn’t be late.

The first day was a blur full of awkward initial introductions and jittery excitement—there was so much for me to absorb. From the security guards and the metal detector at the entrance to the huge glass meeting doors etched with the E.P.A. logo, I was surrounded in an entirely new environment. My coworkers gave me brief explanations of the projects they had been working on using complex jargon which had no doubt become second nature to them. I was excited to devote my summer towards working with like-minded professionals who were as passionate about environmental sustainability as myself.

My project this summer was to organize the National Stakeholder Forum promoting Sustainable Materials Management in the Built Environment (B.E.) which would be held the upcoming fall. The built environment encompasses everything from buildings, infrastructure, parks, and public transportation systems, and is a crucial component of our daily lives. At the forum, the E.P.A. would work to promote a relatively new concept called Life Cycle Thinking amongst stakeholders, which focuses on reusing and recycling at all stages of a product’s lifecycle rather than just the end.

Within the first few days, I learned of the dire environmental impacts of the built environment—something I as well as most have probably never considered. In the 2017 Infrastructure Report Card conducted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. received a D+, which has negative implications for the reliability and safety of our nation’s infrastructure. Approximately $4.59 trillion in investments will be needed in the near future to refurbish the built environment, and demand for these materials are expected sky-rocket. Because these materials are becoming scarcer to find in their natural form, it is all the more critical that we begin to reuse and recycle them to preserve them for the future.

To further our work on the National Stakeholder Forum, I sat in on key stakeholder phone calls and worked with groups such as the U.S. Green Building Council, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the World Economic Forum. My weeks were always packed with meetings, ranging from intra-agency briefings to those with the U.N. Environmental Program (U.N.E.P.) that covered briefings from the G-7.

During my seven weeks at the E.P.A., I was shocked to realize just how much of the skills I had obtained from UniversalGiving had translated. Even the simplest tasks such as drafting professional emails to co-workers were something I had first learned to do during my time at UniversalGiving. At the E.P.A., I was able to manage time-sensitive tasks efficiently and thoroughly, to independently solve problems I encountered, and to easily adapt to changes in the workforce, all of which I attribute to my experience in UniversalGiving’s fast-paced environment.

Another reason I was excited to work at the E.P.A., a larger governmental agency, is because it would allow me to compare the work I did there with the work I did at UniversalGiving, a smaller-scale nonprofit. Both were driven by a similar mission of helping others, and I wanted to determine first hand, how the different organizational structures would play out in their work. Though I believe both sectors had their pros and cons, what struck me was the passion and kindness that were commonplace in both work environments. There was not a time when I smiled more, or felt as passionate about my work than when I was working with like-minded individuals at the E.P.A. or at UniversalGiving. Oftentimes, it is easy to become discouraged and to feel alone when facing a battle as large as tackling poverty in developing nations, or combating climate change. However, through my time in both organizations, I have come to understand the value of community. Community is what keeps us grounded in our goals despite hardships, it is what keeps us passionate, and it is what gives positive change a place in the world.

NGO Spotlight: Mayan Families

This is a guest blog by Livvy Runyon, a videographer at Mayan Families. The original blog post can be found on Mayan Families’ blog.

Rosa’s Legacy: Marisela Advocates for Mayan Women through Education

_MG_8728.JPG(Photo by Livvy Runyon)

“Ever since I graduated high school, I had this longing to keep going, but with the resources I had, I couldn’t do it. I always had that in mind, though, to continue. That one day, I have to go. I have to go.”

Marisela speaks of higher education with fervor in her voice. Sitting outside of her home in El Barranco, Guatemala, her words strike a contrast with the dusty corn fields of the surrounding rural community. Marisela, the oldest child in her family of six, studies social sciences in the nearby town of Sololá. She dreams of becoming a teacher.

“To be able to talk about stories, to talk about productivity within the community, teaching children about politics and the history of our country – I love this. Nowadays there are teachers that have this opportunity to work but many of them don’t take it seriously, and so I want to be the difference.”

_MG_8794.JPG(Photo by Livvy Runyon)

Like most indigenous Guatemalans, Marisela has struggled to find the resources to continue studying. Only 53% of indigenous Mayans in Guatemala complete primary school, and by the age of 16, only 25% of indigenous girls are enrolled. With a lack of schools in rural communities like El Barranco, students must find a way to travel to larger towns, adding the cost of transportation to other expenses like tuition, shoes, and school supplies. With the average household income well below the poverty line, the majority of indigenous families cannot cover the cost of sending their child to school. If the resources are available, families with multiple children often must choose which one will receive an education. In the end it is almost always the son.

_MG_8746.JPGMarisela has found support from her family and now, from many others. She was recently chosen as one of the 2017 recipients of the Rosa Scholarship, an award specifically to cover the school costs for high-achieving, young indigenous women who are pursuing higher education. Now in her last year of university, Marisela describes this scholarship as a great fortune, “because now I am fulfilling my dreams.”

As a young, indigenous woman, Marisela’s opportunity to receive a degree is one that her mother’s generation never saw. For decades, Mayan women have faced discrimination by society and government alike; lacking even the most basic rights to work and participate in their communities. Even today, these obstacles persist in the daily lives of indigenous women across the country, and it is something Marisela aims to change.

“Many times they see us as Mayan women who aren’t capable of doing productive things. We have few opportunities and we hope that in the coming years this changes, that the opportunities change for us as women. Thankfully, the peace accords were signed* and this opened up the field, but we are hit once again with this situation of a lack of opportunities. Discrimination against indigenous women still exists.”

At 27, Marisela is on the brink of completing a university degree and beginning her career, traversing the difficult landscape of a poor economy, unsteady work opportunities, and a lack of educational and health resources that plague Guatemala. Where most might shy away from the progress still needed, Marisela’s eyes shine bright when she speaks of the future of her country.

“We have to make the changes. We have to think of what we can do. To have a different vision so that those who come after me have that access. We should see that the government is looking forward to the future of indigenous communities and guarantee the same rights not only for us, but also for the Garífunas, Xinca, ladinas, and mestizos. That we all have the same rights without discrimination against anyone.”

_MG_8772.JPGPhoto by Livvy Runyon

For Marisela, the chance to attend university unlocks the door to her future and the future of many others. It is overwhelmingly evident that she holds a strong spirit and a burning fire to begin the work to change things, starting with her own education.

“If there isn’t education, there are no opportunities. But I believe, for me, it is the foundation and the best inheritance we have been given,” she says softly and powerfully.

To read the full interview with Marisela, click here.

The Rosa Scholarship was established in 2015 in partnership with Living on One. Inspired by Rosa Coj, a young indigenous woman featured in the Living on One Dollar documentary who was able to return to school to become a nurse, the scholarship helps other indigenous young women who are pursuing their dreams through higher education. To learn more about the scholarship, and support this year’s Rosa Scholarship recipients, visit their page.

To learn about more ways you can give, volunteer and help women like Marisela, check out the UniversalGiving website.

An Exploration of Contrasts: My Internship at UniversalGiving

This summer, I joined UniveralGiving as a member of the Marketing Team. I applied for an internship at UniversalGiving after hearing CEO, and Duke alumna, Pamela Hawley speak at an event for women in entrepreneurship at Duke. I was looking for an opportunity to learn and make a genuine impact at a values-based company. At UniversalGiving I experienced how seemingly diverse skills and ideas harmoniously come together to create a successful business. Here are three things I learned:


  • Branding:
    Over the course of our weekly marketing meetings, our team developed our company brand. We curated content to promote our values of giving, volunteerism and international interconnectedness. We also branded ourselves as thought leaders on topics of interest to our community, creating dialogue on world issues. By publishing posts designed to spark conversation, showcasing our NGO partners doing meaningful work around the world and contributing to posts on others’ pages, our social media presence was about much more than increasing our business and traffic to our website. 

    Through my work, I learned that the value of a company’s social media extends well beyond self-promotion and provides an opportunity to create a values-aligned brand and authentic engagement and conversation.


  • Full Circle Work:
    Because of my quantitative background, my main responsibility on the marketing team was to produce weekly analytics reports for Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Google Analytics. I monitored and tracked changes in likes, comments, shares, followers and user acquisition week after week.I, however, was able to better analyze trends and put them into perspective because I also helped curate the content. I evaluated the numbers within the context of our weekly social media campaign themes and nuances of our specific posts. Because UniversalGiving is a small company, I had a full circle view of our social media strategy; I created the posts, studied how they were received and recommended new strategies. Contributing to both the content and the analysis was immensely helpful allowing me to take on a prominent role in restructuring our social media tactical plan and creating a more effective strategy.

    Through my work on the Marketing Team, I learned the value of having both a quantitative and creative skill set. By blending together these two seemingly disparate areas, I was able to be more effective in both.


  • Precision Finance:
    My quantitative background also took me out of the marketing world and into the Office of the CEO preparing financial reports for the CEO and CFO. Not only did I learn how to create professional products, but I got a close-up view into how the finances of a company are managed and the level of detail required for this line of work. My work on the financials involved preparing invoice spreadsheets for analysis, creating expense reports, and working on the three-year budget projection for an upcoming board meeting. 

    By gaining insight into the financial branch of a company, I learned how broad this area can be; it requires both extreme attention to detail and an ability to abstract into the future. Precision and prediction must blend together to create a dependable financial base for a company.

My experience at UniversalGiving demonstrated how diverse skills and ideas align and integrate to create stronger outcomes. This was a fitting lesson to learn as UniversalGiving is a social entrepreneurship venture; with a goal of both promoting values and maintaining financial stability, contrasts are built in its foundation.


NGO Spotlight: Foundation for International Medical Relief of Children

Project Peru

The Foundation for International Medical Relief of Children (FIMRC) is a global non-profit with a mission to provide access to medical care for underserved and underprivileged familiesaround the world. FIMRC implements innovative and self-sustainable health programs and partners with a network of outpatient clinics fora multidimensional strategy that reaches across clinical services, extensive community outreach efforts and health education programs. FIMRC’s mission is accomplished through:

Project Limón, Nicaragua

  • ACCESS: Providing access to primary care for families to improve their health
  • EDUCATION: Creating a foundation of knowledge for communities to make choices that will benefit their families’ health
  • PARTICIPATION: Incorporating the local community in decisions on key health issues to address, while also incorporating the global community in volunteering to increase our outreach capability

As a non-profit working in international development, FIMRC considered its first priority to be the communities with whom they work. FIMRC is involved in nine countries from Central America to Africa to Southeast Asia, and each communities’ needs are taken into consideration in site development. This is why each site is different in the particular programs that are implemented: each community has different needs and responds differently to programs.

Project Cavite, Philippines

What makes FIMRC different from other development non-profits is that they incorporate volunteers directly into their model of intentional giving through participation. Their volunteers help on site staff in providing the incredible education programs and medical service provided to the communities. Volunteers see the direct impact FIMRC has while on site, and understand first-hand how they accomplish their mission.

FIMRC also understands that not everyone has time to travel and therefore has many other opportunities for people to get involved. They have an Adopt-a-Project program that gives 100% of the funds raised directly to the project site for a direct impact or make a general donation to FIMRC. Additionally, anyone can start an FIMRC Chapter at high schools, colleges or within any community!

Project La Merced, Peru

To learn more about opportunities to volunteer with FIMRC in Peru, India or a host of other countries, search for them on the UniversalGiving website!