How do you effectively handle difficult feedback conversations?

Anna Wildman, Director at Oil in the Engine provides tips on how to approach giving negative feedback using the CEDAR™ method. Anna is facilitating the CIPD Performance Management Workshop which takes place on 6 December 2019 in London. Book your ticket today.




Giving negative feedback isn’t easy. Can you spot the mistake.

Exploring under-performance is one of the manager’s toughest responsibilities but there are several pitfalls that are easy to avoid once you know what they are. How many can you spot in this example? 

‘I understand that you have been feeling burned out lately. I think we all go through periods where we need to redirect our focus. The unfortunate reality is that you are accomplishing less and I am concerned for you. Do you have some ideas about how we could help you to refocus and what specific first steps you might take to get back on track?’

Although this might sound positive, it’s highly unlikely to have the impact the manager is hoping for. Here’s three reasons why not:

  1. It doesn’t get to the root of the issue. If people are feeling burned out, it’s essential to discover what’s causing this before setting an action plan. 
  2. ‘How we can help you’ is overly formal, creating a barrier between the manager and the team member.
  3. ‘I am concerned for you’ sounds insincere. Certainly, putting pressure on someone who is experiencing burn-out to ‘get back on track’ is only likely to create even more stress.

Over the last 30 years I have observed thousands of real-life feedback conversations between managers and their people. Seeing how these and other pitfalls could be avoided led me to create the CEDAR structure to guide the conversation.


The steps stand for Context, Examples, Diagnosis, Action, and Review. Using them will help you to lead all your feedback discussions confidently and effectively, whether they’re about an area of achievement or an area for improvement. Here’s how to follow them when discussing a performance shortfall, as in the case of the burned-out employee above.

Introduce the area of feedback and the level of impact within their overall performance. Explain who is affected and the outcome.

The first step is to help people understand how the feedback fits into their overall performance. Without this context, it can be hard for people to see its significance. To anchor it within the bigger picture:

  • Explore their perspective. Every situation has two sides, and it’s important to understand the full picture.
  • Jointly build a combined view of the context.

In the example above, a stronger way to begin might have been something like: ‘I’m sorry you’ve been feeling burned out lately. We have a lot going on at the moment and you’ve been working really hard to help meet our goals. Thank you very much for that. However, it’s vital that you don’t feel overstretched by this, partly because your work is central to the team and partly, of course, because well-being is the top priority for us all.


Specific illustrations are a vital way to help people understand the feedback more clearly. To explore examples:

  • Ask the individual for their examples first. In many cases, people already know what is or isn’t going well.
  • Explore enough examples to paint the picture clearly. This may be a single substantial example or two or three smaller ones grouped together.
  • Avoid overwhelming the individual. While it’s crucial to use enough examples to build the picture, more than four can feel like drinking from the proverbial fire hose.

In the example above, a useful question to ask is, ‘Where has this had most impact on your work, do you think?’ If they are unsure, add your own examples, such as ‘Two of the areas that have dipped recently compared to your usual results are [X] and [Y]….’

It’s crucial to help people understand why they are where they are. Without accurate diagnosis, any action plan will be guesswork.  Take your time here; insight can sometimes be buried in the subconscious, and the more you use a deliberate and reflective approach, the more it will help the individual to make connections. To facilitate insight:

  • Explore the wider context first; how might the problem have been created, for example, by poor processes, a lack of resources or – and this will take courage – your leadership?
  • Talk through where their own actions might have contributed to the situation.
  • Check for any other reasons that might be behind this.

In the example of burn-out, it’s important to understand exactly what’s causing the issue. Reasons can vary widely; problems at home, an inability to prioritise effectively or an overwhelming inbox are just some of the possible causes.


Up to now, the purpose of the discussion has been to understand the background. The next step is to decide what actions will be important going forward. Unless the individual is inexperienced in their role, always encourage them to lead this as much as possible; your purpose is to facilitate, not to solve, and people are far more likely to implement actions that they have chosen for themselves. In some instances, however, the individual might not know what to do, or you may need to be more directive. Add your suggestions where necessary, just don’t do this too early. To set actions:

  • Ask what actions will be important. Encourage them to be as concrete as possible; the more they can visualize the difference between where they are now and where they are aiming, the easier it is to see how to achieve it.   
  • Ask what support they need from others or you.
  • Keep in mind that where one person is experiencing an issue, others might have a similar problem. If so, you may need to take wider action. 


With burn-out, the action plan will depend on the diagnosis. For example, with problems at home, you may be able to offer some time off; if they struggle with prioritisation, provide coaching; for an overwhelming inbox, identify what can be delegated to others.

Following up is critical, especially where people need to develop new behaviours. Lasting change only happens if those behaviours move from deliberate actions to unconscious habits.

  • Ask the individual when you should check back in together. If you need to suggest an alternative date, explain why.
  • Provide opportunities for them to practice new skills in their day-to-day work and give ongoing support.
  • Give recognition for both progress and effort, and troubleshoot any outstanding issues. 

Following up in cases where individual well-being is at stake is essential. Get back together quickly to check how well the action plan is working, and understand what further support they need.

Using CEDAR to guide your feedback conversations can help to make sure they are as constructive and motivating as possible. 



Anna is facilitating the workshop titled “Leading authentic, empowering, and constructive performance management conversations” at the CIPD Performance Management Workshop which takes place on 6 December 2019 in London. Book your ticket today.