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Behaviors Vs. Feelings in Feedback

One of the biggest mistakes I see managers make when giving feedback is not focusing on an observable behavior. This leads to pushback and the employee feeling attacked.

So what is the difference between a behavior and a feeling? The key word from the first paragraph is “observable”. If you can observe and describe it, it is a behavior. If you can’t, then it is a feeling (either yours or the employee’s).

Let’s use a simple example to show the difference between the two. Let’s say an employee is at an in-person team meeting. The manager is paying attention to the employee in the meeting and decides she has to provide feedback. After the meeting, she pulls the employee aside and says “I noticed you weren’t paying attention during the meeting. That is rude to your coworkers and you could miss important information.”

Did the manager call out a behavior or a feeling with that feedback?

Feeling. In all likelihood, the employee will push back and say “I was paying attention - I got all the key information out of the meeting and was even participating.” I’ve seen these situations devolve into a “no you didn’t/yes I did” back and forth.

How could the manager have given feedback based on a behavior? By describing what things she saw that led her to believe the employee wasn’t paying attention. It could have been spending a lot of time on a laptop, checking her phone, talking with someone next to her, etc. Even with that observed behavior, the manager cannot say with any accuracy if the employee was or wasn’t paying attention. She could say what others might have been thinking.

To give good feedback, the manager would have to focus on the behavior and the potential impact. For example:“I noticed during the meeting you were spending a lot of time looking at your phone and typing, what seemed like replies to an email or text. You should note that I noticed and wondered if you were paying attention since it is hard to multitask. Others may have noticed the same thing and it actually could be perceived as rude on your part by not giving others you full attention.”

The key is that the exact observable behavior was mentioned, what the manager thought, and what others could reasonably be thinking - which is the impact. The employee could argue that she was paying attention, but she cannot argue (at least not without blatantly lying) that she was on her phone and typing things.

The next time you are ready to give feedback, stop yourself and make sure you have an observable action that you can use as your feedback.

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