Tips for Delivering Feedback More Effectively at Work

A feedback megaphone
Jim Kimmons

Feedback, effectively delivered, is one of the most powerful ways to develop employees and improve performance. It doesn't cost anything but time. It supports on-going coaching and development efforts. And best of all, most employees say they want more feedback than they are getting. However, many managers are hesitant to deliver feedback. Here are some ideas to make the process easier. 

Why Managers Hesitate to Deliver Feedback

Although most people will say they want feedback, most of us really don't respond very well to it. It's just human nature. What we really want is positive feedback. We like to hear positive things about our performance and while we know that the other kind of feedback (constructive) is valuable for our development, we don't appreciate hearing what sounds to us like criticism. 

When we hear about something that challenges our self-perception of who we are, a basic psychological "fight or flight" survival mechanism kicks in. In many cases, once employees have a chance to process it, they may benefit from it in the long run. However, the immediate reaction is often to rankle at the input. 

Managers understand that employees are uncomfortable receiving criticism and this feeds their own hesitancy to deliver it. In many instances, a manager is concerned that they will risk damaging a relationship with an employee if they offer criticism, and they delay or avoid giving it.

Another reason employees feel they don’t get enough feedback is that most managers have not been trained in delivering feedback and are not very good at it. Becoming good at it requires training, followed by consistent practice. Delivering feedback does not have to be frightening, uncomfortable or difficult. With practice and patience, managers can improve their comfort and confidence by giving it and employees will appreciate the improved developmental support. 

Tips for Delivering Effective Feedback

  • Start with examining your intentions. What’s the purpose of the feedback? Is it to punish the employee, get it off your chest to make you feel better, or is it truly help the employee improve because you care about them? Feedback is personal, and your intention will affect the way your message is delivered and received.
  • Make giving positive and critical feedback a frequent event. Instead of saving feedback for a big event, like the annual performance review, make giving feedback a regular part of your day-to-day conversations and meetings.
  • Ask for feedback. When a manager asks for feedback, it helps establish a foundation of mutual respect and partnership. By role modeling receiving feedback non-defensively, employees will learn to do the same.
  • Be immediate and timely. Make sure the feedback is as closely connected to the behavior as possible, otherwise it will lose its impact.
  • Ask for permission. Before giving feedback, ask, “Do you mind if I share some feedback with you that I think will help you be more effective?”
  • Focus on a specific behavior, not the person. In other words, make the feedback about the "what," and not the “who.”
  • Explain the impact of the behavior – on you or others. “Susan, when you cut Jamie off in the meeting, I noticed she looked irritated and clammed up for the rest of the meeting. When you don’t hear a person out and interrupt them, they will probably feel disrespected and no longer want to contribute. When the entire team doesn’t feel safe to contribute, our performance will suffer.”
  • Allow the feedback to sink in. Let the person process the feedback. Listen empathetically.
  • If the person doesn’t know a more effective behavior, ask if they would like advice. Once the behavior is pointed out, and they understand the impact, it’s often just a matter of stopping the behavior. Or, it’s obvious what they need to do differently. If they truly need help in coming up with alternative behaviors, give them specific examples. Offer to role play if that would help. Coaching, using effective questions is an even better way than giving advice.
  • Don't create a feedback sandwich. Some say the best way to give critical feedback is to “sandwich” it between two pieces of positive feedback. Personally, I think most people will see through that technique and see it as manipulative. They may also just remember the positive, and forget all about the critical. Again, it is human nature; we all tend to do that.

Don't Forget Positive Feedback

Positive feedback is as important as the constructive type. After all, the purpose of all feedback is to either reinforce the great behaviors that contribute to high performance or eliminate or improve upon behaviors that detract from performance.

If you are going to give positive feedback, by all means, do so, and do it often. Use the same technique – timely, sincere, specific, and positive impact. Try to give positive feedback four to five times more often than critical – just don’t do as a way to sugarcoat the negative.

The Bottom Line

Remember, feedback is a powerful performance enhancement tool. Follow these ten guidelines and you will get more comfortable in giving feedback, and your employees will be more receptive to receiving it.