Effective feedback is an underutilized tool that can have an enormous impact on your employees and your business. When done well, feedback motivates employees, helps them improve performance, and strengthens the employee’s relationship with you and your organization.
The key words there are “when done well”.
What is effective feedback?
Effective feedback is more than praise or criticism, and it goes beyond recognizing a job well done. It includes these elements:
4 Benefits of providing feedback
Providing effective feedback on an ongoing basis, rather than only at annual reviews or quarterly meetings, offers clear benefits to your employees, to yourself and other managers, and to the entire organization.
1. Open communication channels: Developing the habit of regular check-ins opens up communication channels between you and your employees. Regular conversations about projects and goals make it easy for employees to ask questions or raise issues. And making time to talk with each employee shows them that you care about them and their work, which builds trust.
2. Catch problems early: During your regular conversations, both you and the employee can ask questions and point out problems—while they are still small and easy to resolve. You’ll have frequent opportunities to notice when a project is stalled or the employee appears to be struggling, and can step in to offer suggestions or analyze the problem together and come up with a solution. The employee knows you are available to help, another way to build trust.
3. Provide a clear action path: Clear, constructive feedback describes what you see happening and why it matters. You might choose to suggest a solution or a change you would like to see. Or you could brainstorm with the employee, keeping the focus on behaviors and solutions the employee can control. Either way, a feedback conversation lets the employee know what to do and how to do it. It provides the employee a clear path of action.
4. Establish goals and evaluation criteria: Preparing for a feedback conversation pushes you to think about clear goals for your employees. During the conversation, you can verify that the employee understands the goals, as well as your expectations and, critically, how they will be evaluated. Employees generally perform better when they know what’s expected, feel supported, and can ask questions or ask for help. Your regular meetings provide opportunities for them to do just that.
A trusting, transparent work environment
The benefits of regular conversations that provide effective constructive feedback add up to a trusting, transparent environment. Employees know what they should spend their time and energy doing. Even more important, they know that it’s safe to ask questions, raise problems, and ask for your help solving problems. Employees in a trusting, transparent, and supportive environment will do their best work!
How to deliver effective feedback
Timing and delivery are critical to ensuring that your feedback is effective. This is as true of positive feedback as it is of critical feedback.
More is more
Less is more does not apply here! Delivering feedback during an annual review is nowhere near enough.
In addition to an annual performance review, where you might set and evaluate long-range goals, consider weekly check-ins. These are essential to creating and maintaining open communication channels and showing employees you care about them and their work. Predictable, scheduled conversations provide opportunities for employees to ask for help if they need it or raise concerns.
Another way to show employees that you notice and value their contributions is celebrating achievements with an appreciative email, a thoughtful gift card, or recognition at a team meeting. Your regular conversations with employees will give you insight into their preferences—publicly calling attention to an employee’s success at a team meeting might be highly motivating to some, while others prefer to avoid the spotlight and won’t enjoy being the focus of attention. For these—and for all employees—take advantage of informal opportunities to mention a job well done or ask about a potential problem.
Forget the ‘feedback sandwich’
Myths about how to deliver feedback abound, starting with the “feedback sandwich.” This advises managers to wrap negative feedback with positive feedback, starting and ending with the positive. Not only is this approach an obvious ploy, it’s also ineffective, since it removes the focus from the primary behavior or outcome you are there to discuss. Starting and ending with positives just as a way to “soften the blow” can imply that nothing needs to change. And as employees see through this approach, they can perceive the positive feedback as less trustworthy, thereby decreasing the impact of every part of the feedback sandwich!
Instead, deliver feedback by preparing ahead of time with a clear description of what you have observed. Provide enough context for the employee to understand why the behavior is desired or undesired, focusing on elements that the employee can control. State a clear connection to business results or the employee’s career goals, to emphasize why the behavior is relevant.
Deliver corrective feedback in a quiet, private setting with no distractions. You can prepare a possible solution or specific suggestions… but don’t jump right in to offer these. Ask for the employee’s reaction and what they think. Encourage them to suggest a solution.
At this point in the conversation, you might decide on next steps together or, if the employee’s suggestions won’t work, it’s appropriate to suggest a different approach. Once you’ve determined and agreed on the next steps, summarize them in writing (email is fine) for the employee. Always follow up within a few days and in your next regular check-in to see what’s changed.
Accentuate the positive
Admit it, it can be easy to find things to correct or criticize. Too often, employees receive feedback only when they have done something wrong. That’s damaging to your relationship and misses opportunities to develop employees and let them know about all of their positive contributions.
Employees need positive feedback just as much as—or maybe even more than—they need corrective feedback. They need to know what they are doing right so they can keep doing it. If you want a successful business, employee successes and positive behaviors need to be reinforced and nurtured. For all you know, the “right” behavior was done by accident or the employee is questioning whether a different approach would have been better. If you want that behavior consistently repeated, you need to recognize it. As a manager, train yourself to look for the good. When your employee does something right, don’t miss the opportunity to mention it and share your enthusiasm.
Take it a step further by asking them to document their process for others to follow, or asking for their input on related initiatives. You’ll send a message that you value their contributions to the business, which will encourage their good performance to continue.
Don’t get personal
Feedback is not a judgment about the person. Employees already feel vulnerable during one-on-one conversations with the boss about their work. That’s true enough when the employee is doing well; when they’re struggling, they’re even more likely to feel personally criticized.
Avoid personalizing feedback by sticking to observable facts and behaviors: “You’ve been late 6 times this month” instead of “You’re lazy (or unprofessional or disorganized…)” And focus on the impact of their actions: “When you missed the deadline for delivering the project plan, Carla wasn’t able to prepare properly for her meeting with the client, and we lost the sale.” There’s no judgment there; just a concise description of the problem and its effects on colleagues, company, and clients.
Feedback should describe things the employee does or controls. If their project proposal hit the target and helped the account manager overcome a client’s hesitation, praise the writing, the clarity, the organization—recognize the employee’s skills that contributed to this success.
On the other hand, if the client’s response was that the proposal was too error-ridden to inspire trust in your company’s work, describe the need for proofreading and peer-review, and highlight the impact of those actions—to present a polished, professional image to potential clients.
Notice that none of the examples engage in characterizing the employee or name-calling: Avoid sentences starting “You’re a…” or “You’re too…” whether the next word is praise or criticism. Describe the work, describe the behavior, describe the outcome—do not describe the person.
Most employees want feedback
Developing the habits described here—creating regular opportunities to talk with employees and provide feedback—will pay off. Most employees want feedback and don’t feel that they get enough of it. Employees are hungry for chances to develop professionally and build their skills. Offering them the gift of your time and attention to help them do that is the best possible way to motivate them and build deep, lasting loyalty.