How to give feedback when something has gone badly wrong

By Richard Foster-Fletcher ACB CL, Toastmasters International

When someone you work with has made a bad mistake it’s easy to get emotional and lash out with negative feedback.  If you are running your own business and the error may be particularly costly that is a very human reaction.  Let me share my tips based on years of managing teams on how to give feedback effectively in such difficult circumstances.

Manage your emotion

You may be somewhere on a scale from deeply despondent to furious. This won’t help you have a productive conversation so you need to regain your composure. I find taking a deep breath and focusing on the outcome I need to achieve goes a long way toward achieving this.

Don’t put it off

Memory fades so give the feedback as soon as you can.  If you procrastinate your team member may make themselves believe that what they did “wasn’t really so terrible.”  Avoid this by arranging to meet face-to-face meeting soon.

Analyse what happened

In a small business you will know the person well. Ask yourself: “What caused X to do the dreadful work?  Are they so dedicated that they wind themselves into a stressed frenzy? If so they’ll need mentoring on how to prioritise and deal with deadlines. If they simply don’t seem to care you have to tackle their motivation before you do anything else.

Make a list

Giving negative feedback can be awkward and uncomfortable so make notes of the key points you need to get across.  If you find yourself getting emotional the checklist will act as your guide to keep you on track and cover everything.

There is no point in personal attacks. You need to keep focussed on the specific facts of what has happened.  If you get personal you’ll simply make the person more defensive.

Keep to specifics

Whatever you do make sure you avoid being vague in the feedback you give.  “Don’t do that again!”, “You need to improve” or “you seem to have ignored procedures” don’t give much guidance for the person to understand either what they did wrong or what to do about it.

Discuss the work done and point to specific things that have gone wrong. Next, talk about how these issues can be resolved. Without a discussion on what needs to happen to improve the quality of the work, there is little chance of a productive outcome.  Discussion is key. It will help the person feels they are being heard and that they have a positive stake in the future.

Plan follow-up

Giving feedback is just the beginning.  Make sure you agree a plan and have a date in the diary for a follow up discussion.  You may need the person to redo a particular task or they may need to undertake some training or other course of action to improve their performance.  Whatever it is that needs to be done, set a deadline and a date to review progress.  That way there will be accountability on both sides.

Be encouraging

Usually when you give feedback it is good to use a feedback sandwich and end with a positive statement congratulating the person on something he or she has done well.  In a situation where someone has done something dreadful I’d recommend a different approach.  The idea is to focus on the future so make a clear statement which shows that you believe the recipient can overcome this setback.  If you have evidence of a time when the person was, say, successful in a particular project, you can use that to help boost their belief they have the necessary ability and can succeed in future.

Giving feedback when something has gone wrong is tough. However, if you control your emotions and follow the guidance above you’ll find you’ll be able to turn tricky situations around.


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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