The When of Feedback: 3 Rules for Leaders

By Jessica Johnson | September 26, 2023

Key Takeaways:

  • The circumstances surrounding “when” we share feedback are just as important as the content, or the “what,” of our feedback to colleagues, family members, friends, and even strangers.
  • Feedback should happen as an ongoing conversation instead of a yearly or bi-yearly event.
  • Leaders who consider the “when” of feedback often increase the likelihood that action will be taken on the feedback offered.

I’ve been involved in a lot of discussions lately around poor feedback—both delivery and receptiveness. It is a challenge to give direct and honest feedback where the receiver has a desire to make adjustments for the future. In many cases, the circumstances surrounding “when” we share feedback are just as important as the content, or the “what,” of our feedback to colleagues, family members, friends, and even strangers. Paying attention to the “when” can increase the likelihood that action will be taken on the feedback you offer. Let me share a few rules for leaders to improve the “when of feedback:”

Rule #1 – Assess the Agora

Selecting the appropriate setting, or agora, of when and where your message should be delivered matters. The agora in Ancient Greece was a central, public space—this is where commerce and conversation happened among the colonnades in Greek city-states. It was a powerful space because it was familiar and comfortable to the locals. When you pay attention to the agora in a feedback conversation, your considerations may encompass the physical location of your conversation, how the participants are situated, cultural concerns, channels, rules, and timing.  

If you have some feedback that you know will be difficult for the receiver to hear, sitting across a table staring each other down might not be the best seating arrangement. Face-to-face can feel unnecessarily intimidating and “in-your-face” for the receiver—triggering a fight or flight response. Instead, can you deliver your message in a more comfortable environment? Go for a walk, sit on a couch, do something where you can work with your hands like washing the dishes or working in the yard, while having the conversation. Delivering feedback to a teenager may work best in the car when you’re both facing forward. Placing the feedback receiver in a welcoming space can help them feel comfortable and in turn, more open to the feedback.

Rule #2 – Real Time Reviews

Feedback should happen as an ongoing conversation instead of a yearly or bi-yearly event. I’ve spoken with plenty of managers who have a difficult time preparing for yearly performance reviews because they have to reach back over 365 days of interactions to pull together a list of things that went well and things that did not for each of their direct reports. They wish they took better notes and had more concrete examples—our memories are not usually strong enough to pull together specific facts after long stretches of time.

Wouldn’t it be better if we could have our feedback conversations in a timely manner – connected in proximity to the event or events that warrant feedback? Then, when it comes time for a yearly performance review, the manager can ask the employee to catalog what personal development they’ve been working on from feedback they’ve received throughout the year. The accountability for the progress is owned by the receiver of feedback, and they have a partner (in the form of their manager) to report back to regarding their actions.

Rule #3 – Consider Your Intent

As I coach leaders, often the subject of a particular employee difficulty surfaces. Perhaps their direct report can’t collaborate with peers, has become disengaged with their work, gets overly heated in team discussions, or has terrible body odor—all true cases I’ve discussed with clients.

Many times, the manager is at a breaking point and very frustrated with the situation. When they want to discuss how to deliver the feedback, my first question is, “What is your intent?” This may sound like more of a “why” question on the content, but for me, it is very much related to the “when” of giving feedback because it’s more about you than the employee.

Let’s say one of your employees just cut their colleagues off multiple times in a single meeting with you and senior management present. That employee is very skilled technically, but has a difficult time behaving like a supportive team player. You are beside yourself with his behavior. You have an opportunity as you’re walking out of the meeting to pull your employee aside and offer some feedback. This meets with rule #2 above – delivering timely feedback. But in that instant, how do you answer the question, “What is your intent?”

If honest, this manager may share frustration, annoyance, or any other emotion stemming from what just happened in the meeting. If they share the immediate feedback when their mental state is emotionally elevated, odds are the emotion will come across in the delivery of the feedback and the result may be a shift of their emotional frustration to their employee. In such situations, little progress can be made on the issue.

Another way to handle the situation would be for the manager to take a breath—or a few breaths—until their intent is focused positively on the other person. Consider these questions: What do you want for them? Do you want to help them improve? Perhaps to avoid consequences like having to leave the team, the organization, or even find another job? Do you believe, with the right support, that they can change?

When we’re clear on our intent, and it is focused on how we can help the other individual benefit, then we’re ready to have the conversation—or we may even decide the conversation isn’t necessary. Taking time to prepare (which sometimes only takes a couple of minutes), and being clear on our positive intent, can make for a smoother and more productive conversation.


As you prepare for future feedback conversations, I hope you consider the setting/agora, plan to have more conversations vs. less, and be sure to take a breath and connect with your own positive intent. If you have other ideas on how you negotiate the “when” of feedback – please contact us with your thoughts. 

If you’d like ideas on how to strategically develop the leadership and talent in your organization, we invite you to explore our leadership development offerings

Jessica Johnson is a Principal with The RBL Group. She has worked with organizations around the world as an executive coach, teacher, and facilitator and has published widely on the topics of leadership, HR, and talent management. 

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