Giving Feedback: When to Delay

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Effective feedback should always be delivered as close to the observed behavior as possible. But there are times when delaying feedback is the best choice. Let’s explore why.

The topic of when to delay feedback can be challenging, particularly because it’s clear that too many feedback givers already delay feedback for various reasons, including because they want to avoid giving negative feedback or because they wait until the right time, as Gallup made clear:

“In our experience, many organizations know continuous feedback is best but struggle with activating the ongoing behaviors needed to achieve it at scale. So, they stick to traditional approaches (like annual reviews) in which managers delay feedback until they find the ‘right time.'”

The important part is to ensure you, as a feedback giver, understand why you are delaying feedback — and if it’s because you are burying your head in the sand and potentially avoiding it altogether, you should explore and move through that discomfort.

Abstract painting of a colorful farm landscape, featuring prominently a large ostrich whose head is outlined by a sun.
Did you know? Ostriches do not bury their head in the sand when they are scared.
Source: Cameron Conaway. Image created using Magic Media by Canva

Our human experience also makes it clear that, generally, the longer the feedback is delayed, the more its value diminishes (i.e., receiving feedback that nobody likes the dish we made would have been great to know before the 32nd time we made it).

We also have academic research, going back to at least John Sterman’s 1989 feedback research, highlighting how delays between decisions and feedback negatively impact performance. Again, all of this speaks to timely, specific feedback being the most helpful.

However, as you may recall from the Why is Feedback Challenging? section of the Constructive Feedback at Work course, Timing plays a vital role:

Constructive feedback challenges diagram - highlighting the challenges of Timing

As you see here, there are perfectly acceptable times to delay feedback, such as the feedback:

Not coming at a great time for the receiver to receive. For example, the receiver may have just delivered the performance of a lifetime. It doesn’t make sense to rush the stage to share how they could have improved.

Saturating the receiver. Sometimes, the frequency of feedback can be too high, overwhelming the receiver with negative feedback or leaving too little time for adequate feedback processing. As this paper in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes makes clear, “…there is reason to believe that more frequent feedback can sometimes lead to declines in performance.”

It may also make sense to delay feedback if the feedback giver already has a meeting scheduled to go deep on the topic, or if the giver feels they need to see a bit more behavior/performance before they bring it up, or even if the feedback giver doesn’t yet feel comfortable with how they want to frame it.

As always with constructive feedback, there’s nuance and room for judgment. If you aren’t ready to give feedback, that’s fine. But you should know why and have a clear sense of what you will need to feel ready. Otherwise, the never-feeling-ready could mean you join a rather large group that completely avoids giving feedback and negatively impacts their employees and organization.


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