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Thought Leadership

The 3Cs: How to Deliver Feedback That Lasts

Businessman and businesswoman sitting at a desk in an office having a discussion.

Even the most experienced managers may sweat at the prospect of delivering a performance evaluation. These delicate conversations require speaking in just the right tone and communicating with utmost clarity, especially when emotions run high. UNC Professor Elad Sherf recommends using the framework of the three Cs — Clarity, Contextual Meaning, and Composure — as a guide for turning every performance review into an opportunity to demonstrate empathy and help employees achieve lasting growth, learning, and improvement.

Feedback Trap

Advice on how managers can deliver more effective feedback abounds in venerable business media and social media “listicles” alike. Yet according to Elad, this advice often falls short. Directions to “be specific” and “focus on the behavior, not the person” are too ambiguous to provide managers with real insight. Further, managers themselves may fall into this “ambiguity trap.” Evaluations such as, “you are not doing well enough,” leave employees ill-equipped to know precisely how they should improve going forward.

The 3Cs for Feedback That Lasts

With practice, managers can use the three Cs to deliver constructive feedback that provides transparent direction (Clarity), emphasizes employees’ goals (Contextual Meaning), and negotiates employees’ affective reactions (Composure).

Clarity: The “Content”
Effective feedback provides specific information on two elements of an employee’s performance. The first element focuses on the employee’s past actions and behaviors. This presents managers with a golden opportunity to be specific. Rather than speaking in broad, general evaluations (e.g., “the presentation was not compelling enough”), communicate how the employee’s specific actions and behaviors contributed to them exceeding, meeting, or falling short of expectations.

The second element of effective feedback focuses on the future. Give the employee precise directions about what they should do to improve their performance next time.

Contextual Meaning: The “Why”
No conversation exists in a vacuum. Rather, our interactions are rich with contextual meaning that flows from our backgrounds, relationships, experiences, and, crucially, our goals.

During a performance evaluation, employees implicitly want to hear, “What does this feedback mean for my bonus, promotion, or professional reputation?” Managers who successfully identify and connect their feedback to each employee’s unique goals will deliver a more impactful and longer-lasting message.

Composure: The “Response”
Managers who wish to deliver effective feedback must leverage their emotional intelligence. Before a performance review, identify the emotions the employee is likely to experience during the conversation. Then craft your message with the relevant feeling in mind. For example, understanding how an employee will interpret feedback about their career goals, and then shifting the conversation to how their goals can still be achieved, can help disarm anger or anxiety.

Delivering feedback is among a manager’s greatest challenges. The three Cs provide a practical, psychology-based framework that will help managers deliver more effective feedback. By leveraging Clarity, Contextual Meaning, and Composure, managers can adapt their feedback conversations to the unique needs of each employee and provide an actionable roadmap for improved learning, growth, and performance going forward.

If you would like to learn more about how you can improve your employee evaluations, download our full white paper, The 3Cs of Delivering Effective Feedback. This resource expands on the psychology behind the three Cs and includes tools for preparing and structuring your feedback conversations.



Elad N. Sherf is Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior and Sarah Graham Kenan Scholar at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.