How To Give Feedback That Wins You FANS

Over the last year or so, I’ve developed and delivered what I call a ‘Startup Leadership 101’ program for some of the fastest-growing technology companies in Silicon Valley. I noticed that as startups grow, individual contributors with little to no management experience are often thrust into a leadership role, without the requisite skills and self-awareness to be great at that part of their job. One of the parts of the program that participants find most helpful is the segment on giving feedback, since this is such a crucial, and often botched, part of being a manager.

Here is the framework I teach relatively new managers for giving feedback. It applies both to performance-based feedback (“the release was more than 2 weeks behind schedule”) and behavior-based feedback (“you were defensive and would not let Jane finish her sentence”). To give feedback that wins you F.A.N.S. (and does the primary thing feedback is intended for – improves performance), try keeping in mind the following acronym:

  • Future-oriented
  • Assess readiness
  • Net (stay on your side)
  • Specific & direct


Human beings are incredibly sensitive (especially the ones that go out of their way to pretend they’re not.) At some level, we’re all aware of this, which is why we’re generally reticent to give someone direct feedback even when we know we should or that it would ultimately be in their best interest.

The problem with the way most people give feedback is that they generally focus on what the person (already) did wrong in the past (and therefore can’t change). Past-oriented feedback triggers a defensive response in the feedback recipient aimed at maintaining their social status (whether consciously or not). As David Brooks notes in his insightful book, we are all Social Animals. Studies have revealed that hearing someone say “You know what I just heard about you” creates roughly the same stress response as someone pointing a gun at your head – we’re wired to pay attention to our social status, which our brains perceive as just as crucial to our survival as, apparently, our ability to dodge a bullet.

When met with this very human defensive response, the feedback giver ends up feeling frustrated, often thinking some variant of “I’m going out on a limb to give you feedback, why are you jumping down my throat” and walks away feeling even more wary of giving feedback in the future. And thus the cycle of insufficient feedback continues…

To circumvent this defensive-response-why-did-I-bother cycle, try taking a different approach. First, ask yourself what you want for this person.  Why are you giving them feedback in the first place?  If the answer is something other than “to help them get better,” you may want to re-think whether giving feedback is the appropriate action. Even if you’re giving feedback in anticipation of possibly letting the person go, it will still make a big difference to take the perspective that they can get better and ensure that your goal in giving them feedback is to help them to do so.

Once you’re clear with yourself that the goal of the feedback is to help the person improve, be intentional about orienting yourself that way. Regardless of what you say or do, having a mindset that you’re there to help them improve in the future (rather than slap them on the wrist about something they did in the past) will make a difference in how they receive the feedback, largely through the different body language and feelings that you’ll unconsciously convey.

Leadership development guru Marshall Goldsmith tells his clients to give ‘FeedForward’ instead of ‘Feedback’, which is a useful way to remember to orient yourself toward the future.

When you deliver the feedback, start by stating your intentions. Let the person know what you want for them (“I want you to succeed in your role here, and I’d like to share some feedback that I believe will help you get there.”). Then present your feedback, ideally no more than 2 or 3 key themes, as what you’d like them to do in the future. Feel free to use examples from the past, but make sure not to overly dwell on the past (“I’d like you to review your work before you send it to me.  That time you sent me the press release on xyz, there were tons of typos and it made me wonder if you’d looked it over.)

Assess Readiness

If you’re in a one-on-one or performance review meeting, most likely the context is clear and the person you’re giving feedback to is ready to receive it. But for everyday feedback, too often managers sideswipe team members by dropping feedback in their lap at a time when they’re not ready to hear it. Maybe their cat just died or they’re just having a busy day, but timing matters in giving feedback. Remember, the primary goal of giving feedback is to improve performance. Make sure to stop and think about when the person will be most likely open to receiving and internalizing the feedback.

A study at the University of Texas’ McCombs School of Business found that giving people feedback after a “short delay” actually improved performance more than offering up the same feedback immediately. The study also showed that if you wait too long, the feedback becomes useless. Try to find the right balance between waiting long enough so that the person has had a chance to self-correct and/or is ready to receive the feedback, and not waiting too long after you observed a behavioral issue or after a task was completed such that the feedback no longer has context.

Depending on the nature of the feedback, it can sometimes be useful to assess readiness by simply asking permission. When asking someone permission to give them feedback (“can I give you some feedback?”), one or two things usually happens. Either they say something like “I’m in the middle of something right now, how about we sit down this afternoon?”, or “sure”.  Either way, you’re better off for having asked.  Once they’ve given you permission, they’re more likely to be open to actually hearing the feedback and doing something about it.

Net (Stay on your side)

As I wrote in my post Want Better Communication? Stay on Your Side of the Net, one of the keys to feedback (and communication in general) is to never state your opinion as fact. A useful metaphor for this is to imagine a tennis court, on your side of which is everything that you know with certainty – how you feel, what you think and observe. On the other side is what the other person thinks, intends, feels and observes. When we cross the net, we state the other person’s thoughts, intentions and feelings (or really, our interpretation of the other person’s thoughts intentions and feelings) as if they’re facts.

Staying on your side of the net:

  • “I am very frustrated by how the meeting is going”
  • “I am losing confidence that you will deliver what I need from you on time”
  • “When you ignore my suggestions I get annoyed and stop listening to you”
  • “I think a different approach will be more helpful”
  • “I want you to let me finish my thought before sharing what you think”

Crossing the net:

  • “You are too aggressive”
  • “You’ve got a lot of nerve”
  • “You are defensive”
  • “You are frustrated by the lack of progress”
  • “You didn’t think through this enough”
  • “You’re being indirect”

Specific & Direct

Most feedback is not useful because it is too general. Telling someone “you need to pay more attention to detail” or “you should be more engaged in your work” doesn’t give them any clarity about what you actually expect them to do differently. Giving great feedback requires an investment in observing someone’s behavior and thinking through exactly how you’d like them to behave (or stop behaving). By being specific and direct about exactly what behaviors you’d like them to stop or start doing, you’re much more likely to see the improvement you’re aiming for.

Keep, Start, Stop

A great shortcut to giving useful, future-oriented, specific & direct feedback is to use the Keep, Start, Stop method:

  • What should they keep doing?
  • What should they start doing?
  • What should they stop doing?

The nature of the questions will help ensure you focus on what you want them to do going forward, rather than dwelling on the past.



  • Paying attention to what your team members are doing and what they could do to improve their performance or behavior


  • Giving future-oriented, specific & direct feedback at a time when the person is ready to receive it


  • Crossing the Net by stating your interpretations and opinions as facts

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