How to Give Feedback to Employees
When managers ignore employees or focus just on their weaknesses, they double the chances for them to become unproductive.
If you want to develop a thriving work environment, you need to be giving feedback, even if it’s to point out an employee’s mistakes.
Think about how many more benefits you’ll see if you learn to give feedback to employees in the most constructive way possible!
In this post, we’ll look at how to do that, why it matters, and what to do if the feedback doesn’t work.
What Does Employee Feedback Mean?
Employee feedback is the practice of giving constructive observations and suggestions within the workplace.
Many employees think “feedback” will mean “bad news.” This is a sign that managers often fall short on delivering the proper amount of positive feedback to their employees. Unfortunately, most managers only give positive feedback or praise as a cushion for the negative feedback they want to deliver.
Most commonly, the term is used to describe feedback managers give to their employees, but employees can also provide feedback to managers and the organization.
In a healthy workplace, feedback should be a natural part of the organizational culture at all levels, going in both directions.
Unfortunately, this workplace culture is fairly rare. Since giving feedback isn’t an easy practice, it can quickly become awkward or tense.
People can take feedback personally — especially if it’s negative.
Because of the difficulty involved in developing a healthy practice of feedback, most managers avoid giving feedback.
Around 73% of employees value feedback and consider it essential to their jobs, but only a third of employees report receiving feedback regularly. And 69% of employees claim they would put in more effort at work if they felt more recognized.
It might feel like an awkward habit to develop, but feedback is crucial to a thriving workplace. Employees benefit from understanding how their supervisors view them – through scheduled performance reviews and regular feedback. Without these, employee performance will suffer.
What Are the Types of Feedback?
There are three generally-accepted categories of employee feedback: praise, criticism, and constructive feedback.
This kind of feedback is the easiest to give since it’s focused on someone’s successes and positive behavior. Employees will usually respond to praise with increased confidence and self-esteem at work.
Criticism is a negative opinion or judgment about an employee. It’s a destructive form of feedback, and employees won’t respond well to it. Avoid being critical; instead, focus on being constructive.
As a manager, you can point out your team members’ mistakes without using harmful criticism. The biggest difference between the two is that criticism is judgmental, while constructuve criticism focuses on the individual’s actions (NOT the individual themselves).
A constructive feedback conversation has two flows to it – “feedback” and “feedforward,” . Feedback focuses on past behavior, while feed-forward focuses on the future. Therefor, a complete feedback session will have four components:
- Positive feedback: comments about past actions that were correct and should be repeated.
- Negative feedback: comments about past actions that were incorrect and shouldn’t be continued.
- Positive feedforward: comments about future actions that should be taken.
- Negative feedforward: comments about future behavior that should be avoided.
Why Is It Important to Give Positive Feedback to Your Employees?
Gallup’s research showed that positive feedback is a much more effective motivational tool than focusing on an employee’s weakness.
Organizational psychologist Dr. Marcial Losada said that high-performing teams have a 6-to-1 ratio of positive to negative feedback.
If we use this statistic as a base, employees need six pieces of positive feedback for every negative feedback they receive.
But positive feedback is about more than just saying “great work.” 57% of people prefer constructive feedback to simple praise or recognition in assessments.
When giving positive feedback, try to focus on specific examples of what the employee is doing well so they can get an idea of what they should repeat.
For instance, “Your marketing presentation was really well-thought-out and informative. Thanks for working so hard on it!”
What Are the Benefits of Employee Feedback?
Giving feedback cultivates a healthy, productive company culture. As a manager, you’re the leader of a team — and you set the tone through your leadership skills. Being able to balance criticism with corrective feedback, ensuring that employees meeting your standards know they’re appreciated – these are steps that drastically improve your business.
Implementing a culture of constructive feedback helps in the following ways:
Promotes employee engagement
Employees who receive regular feedback will take more ownership of their work, and they’ll be more likely to engage with fellow employees.
Improves work quality
Employees who receive regular check-ins from managers will feel supported — and will, therefore, be more motivated to provide the quality of work that your organization expects.
Constructive feedback and a positive environment not only reduces turnover, but it increases performance. Consider it a steroid for your employees’ professional development, which makes them more effective workers and saves the organization money.
Improves intra-office relationships
A culture of positive feedback and easy praise leads to stronger relationships between managers and staff and between peers.
Allows managers to grow
Feedback is a two-way street, and your employees can give you ideas to improve how you handle performance management or your business overall — if the workplace culture makes them feel safe enough to do so.
Gives introverted employees the support
Some shy or introverted employees may feel uncomfortable asking questions.
A system of regular feedback and check-ins helps foster an environment where they get the information and direction they need without having to ask — and if they need to, they’ll likely feel more comfortable asking in such an open environment.
How to Give Feedback to Employees Effectively
Now that we’ve established the necessity of a feedback culture in your workplace let’s look at a few concrete tips on building your employee feedback skills.
1. Be Specific
When delivering feedback, it might be instinctual to be as vague as possible out of a sense of tact or diplomacy. However, failing to be specific means failing to make progress.
Saying, “Please improve the quality of your work” or “I wasn’t a fan of your latest project results. I’m going to need you to do better next time” can discourage and confuse employees who need to know why you were unimpressed with the quality of their work.
Ensure that you’re pointing to a specific situation and explaining what they need to improve when you offer feedback.
Employees want to understand what they’re doing wrong (or right), and why it matters.
Try to link the topic at hand to business outcomes, like “Our conversion rate has really skyrocketed since you started writing more sales copy. Great job!” or “The cover page of your last report was a bit too flashy for our corporate style. Can you try using more muted tones next time?”
2. Consider the Timing
It’s many managers’ first instinct to save up all their feedback for the annual employee review. However, the best time to give feedback is usually in the moment.
When you share your inputs promptly, it makes employees feel like you’re committed to their success in the workplace.
They have the opportunity to put changes into practice immediately, ensuring their improved work performance (and making it more likely that that annual review goes better).
Think of it this way: if you ignore an issue at the time (even if you plan to bring it up eventually), you’re allowing the employee to think they’re doing everything right, and that mistake will keep happening.
Unaddressed problems can cause a domino effect of poor results.
One caveat: if you’re feeling angry or stressed, it’s probably a good idea not to give feedback right at that moment.
While the general wisdom is to deliver feedback as close to the event as possible, it’s wise to wait long enough for your emotional state to be calm and collected.
You don’t want to let your emotions get the best of you and say something that isn’t constructive; in that case, your feedback might do more harm than good.
3. Keep It Private
It should go without saying, but if you must criticize someone: never do it publicly. The employee’s embarrassment and resentment won’t encourage them to act on your advice.
If you’re planning to give constructive feedback, it’s best to do it in a one-on-one setting.
Choosing to single someone out during a team meeting — even if you use the most tactful and diplomatic language — can still be seen as shaming, which lowers office morale.
When you want to praise an employee for outstanding work, it’s a good idea to keep that kind of feedback private as well. Many people don’t like to be the center of attention, and any spotlight makes them uncomfortable.
You might even consider giving some of your feedback in written form — especially if your employee is shy. Allowing them space to digest the feedback in total privacy could be what they need.
Plus, writing it down helps you express your thoughts precisely the way you want to communicate them.
This is especially helpful if it’s negative feedback regarding something that made you upset; taking the time to create a written response gives you space to reflect and put a meaningful spin on it.
4. Don’t take the “Sandwich Approach”
Have you ever tried “sandwiching” your negative feedback between two compliments?
For instance, “Susan, I love your blazer! By the way, I’ve noticed you coming in late twice this week, so can you try to be on time from now on? Thanks for how hard you’re working on the July project, though!”
That sounds insincere, right?
Most managers believe employees will accept criticism when it accompanies positive feedback because it creates a feeling of balance. But in reality, couching your critique between two pieces of praise appears manipulative and disingenuous.
Instead, employees usually prefer it if you cut to the core.
The best approach is to be transparent: tell your employees why you wanted to talk to them and what you hope to get out of the conversation and be open about your concerns respectfully.
Being transparent rather than hiding your negative feedback in the middle of compliments. Transparency helps your employees feel they have joint control of the conversation with you, and they can help discover solutions to the problem at hand.
5. Try the BISA Approach
One helpful way to give feedback to employees is to use the BISA model. It stands for Behavior, Impact, Silence, and Alternatives.
- Behavior: Point out the specific action or statement that the person expressed. Stick to facts.
- Impact: How did the behavior affect those around the person (including you)?
- Silence: Pause to let the person digest what you’ve told them. Your pausing is also their chance to respond.
- Alternatives: Ask them if they can think of ways they could have acted differently, or how to prevent that behavior in the future.
For example, if you have an employee who keeps coming back late from lunch, you might point out their behavior by saying, “I’ve noticed a few days recently where you were on your lunch break for longer than an hour — I’m specifically thinking of yesterday and Tuesday.”
Then, move straight into the impact: “A few extra minutes here or there may not seem like a big deal, but it forces your coworkers to delay their lunch breaks while waiting for you to get back. Even being a few minutes late can affect the whole team. Is there a reason you’ve been taking longer lunches lately?”
Next, silence. Give the employee a chance to think about what you’ve said and to answer your question.
Then, ask for alternatives. “Can you think of a way to make sure you’re back from your lunch on time in the future?” And come prepared with some suggested solutions of your own.
Pro tip: A well-written employee handbook can cancel many work-related issues as it sets the rules of conduct at work. Read how to create one and what it should include in our guide here.
6. Don’t Make It Personal
When offering feedback, make sure you don’t let your personal feelings about the employee affect the input you’re giving.
This isn’t the time to air personal grievances or to point out aspects of the employee’s personality that you don’t like.
Even if you know you shouldn’t let your personal biases get in the way, it can still be tough to separate your own opinions from your professional feedback in practice.
The trick is to focus on your employee’s actions, not their characteristics. The employee will be more likely to take your feedback positively if you keep your conversation less about them and more about their behavior (something they can change).
Work around the elements of their personality that might contribute to the unwanted behavior by focusing on what they can objectively improve. Think about the tangible action (or pattern of actions) they’ve shown, and go from there.
People are much more willing to acknowledge something they’ve done wrong, instead of something “wrong” about who they are or how they need to “fix themselves.”
7. Focus on the Outcome
When you tell an employee about something you’d like them to change, try to focus on what success will look like.
Saying “you always forget to update the calendar” will put the employee on the defensive immediately, and they’re probably just going to get angry rather than put your advice into practice.
Picking apart someone’s past behavior is much less likely to induce change than addressing how someone can improve from now on. If you focus on the future outcome, you can literally light up their brain and make them feel more upbeat — even inspired.
In contrast, dwelling on past mistakes can leave your employees anxious and defensive. They might spend the whole conversation thinking of ways to explain away their mistakes, rather than coming up with solutions.
Instead of “you always forget to update the calendar,” try “I’ve noticed that you’ve forgotten to update the calendar in the past. What do you think about setting a reminder for yourself? I suggest you try doing that. Here are some benefits I think we’d see….”
Rather than fixating on what they’ve done wrong, try keeping their eye on the prize.
8. Follow Up
Feedback isn’t a onetime thing.
Even though research suggests that one-third of managers don’t bother checking in with employees after giving feedback, one of the most important things you can do is to follow up after giving feedback to your employees.
Set aside time after you shared feedback to see how they’re doing and to show you appreciate improvements they’ve made since your last check-in.
Following up can show you’re paying attention, that you’re invested in their success, and you care about your ongoing working relationship.
When they see you checking in and being supportive, they’ll feel motivated to keep working towards the goal.
This can also be a great opportunity for you to receive feedback from your employee now that they’re trying to put your coaching into practice.
They might have concerns or ideas about how the workplace could better suit their needs as they strive to meet your (or the company’s) expectations.
Effective employee feedback is all about authenticity, actionable steps, and specificity.
Make sure you’re putting some of these tips into practice, and before long, giving constructive feedback will come naturally to you.
What if the Feedback Doesn’t Work?
What should you do when you provide feedback to an employee, using all the positive strategies listed above, but your employee still reacts poorly?
Or what if they nod their head and promise to do better, but then nothing changes?
Unfortunately, there’s only so much you can do as a manager — you can’t act for your employees, and you can’t guarantee they’ll take your words to heart.
Before throwing in the towel, though, try giving them feedback on how they take feedback.
- Schedule a time to discuss the problem when you and the employee both have time to evaluate the situation. Make sure the employee knows it’s part of your job to give feedback — and part of theirs to act on it.
- Avoid accusatory language; just ask them what’s going on in their heads when they receive feedback from you. Treat the conversation like an exploratory journey you’re on together.
- Ask the employee for feedback. Maybe they aren’t responding to your suggestions because something you’re saying or doing rubs them the wrong way. Perhaps they have ideas on how you could give better or more actionable feedback.
- Finally, show appreciation for any progress your employee makes after your conversation. This will encourage them to keep up the excellent work.
If the employee continues to resist your feedback or becomes defensive, it can lead to a cycle of anger and defensive behavior.
If nothing you’re doing seems to work, it would be wise to bring outside help like a mediator before things spiral out of control.
Employee Feedback: The Key to a Flourishing Workplace
As a manager, giving feedback can be an intimidating habit to get into — but crafting a culture of feedback is essential to a healthy and thriving work environment.
Keep your feedback specific, timely, and private.
Don’t “sandwich” negative comments between compliments or make feedback personal; instead, focus on actions and outcome. And finally, don’t forget to follow up!
No one’s perfect, and there are always circumstances in which an employee won’t respond to coaching. But mostly, implementing common-sense approaches to employee feedback will create a robust, productive work culture that benefits everyone.