Giving feedback to employees is one of those things that most managers feel very uncomfortable doing. We're typically worried about the reaction we're going to get... What if the employee gets defensive? What if they deny the problem? What if this damages our working relationship?
And yet we're told that giving our employees feedback on their performance, on a regular basis, is a vital contributor to employee performance, development and engagement.
So I set out to research what the experts say is the best way to give employees feedback.
The classic advice on giving feedback
Most of the articles I came across repeated the same general advice:
- Focus on the behavior, not the person.
- Give specific examples.
- Describe the alternate behavior you desire.
- Give the feedback in a timely way, and in private.
Some also suggest outlining the consequences or impact of the employee's current behavior.
And while all of this certainly seems like good practice, it didn't feel like enough to me. I've tried to follow this formula with my own staff in the past and had varying results. I've also been on the receiving end of feedback that followed this formula, yet fell short of being helpful.
Flipping feedback on its head
Performance management expert Jamie Resker says a part of the problem is that this model focuses on the past behaviors, and on the negatives - the things we want the employee to stop doing. That gets people defensive. Resker suggests instead that you describe the desired behavior, in a forward thinking way. It's a way of flipping the feedback around.
In order to be more effective, Resker says you should tell the employee what you need him to start doing or to do differently; not what he needs to stop doing.
Some other suggestions for improving feedback
Having done all this research and reading on the topic of feedback, and drawing on my experience as an employee, manager and parent (yes that comes in handy too!), I'd like to offer a few suggestions of my own for how to give effective feedback that helps your employees continually develop, improve and succeed:
Don't assume you're right
- About what you observed.
- About why the employee did it.
- About what the best approach is.
We forget that each of us views the world through the lens of our personality and life experience. As managers, we certainly have lots to offer our employees. But we're not always right, and our preferred approach or behaviors are not the "gold standard". When you give feedback, make sure you're opening a dialogue about performance and development.
Make sure your heart is in the right place
The only reason to give someone feedback is to help them improve and succeed. Check your motivation before engaging in a feedback dialogue.
Make sure you're both in the right frame of mind
For feedback to be effective, you both need to be in the right frame of mind. If either one of you is angry, defensive, frustrated, tired, dejected, etc. you're not really open to having an effective conversation. Both of you need to feel safe, secure and open to the other.
If either one of you is not in the right frame of mind, postpone the feedback dialogue until you are.
Don't assume your feedback will be welcomed
Your employee may not be ready to discuss this aspect of their performance with you right now. He may be feeling fragile or vulnerable. He may be stressed or preoccupied. He may be focusing on improving some other aspect of his performance right now.
Or he may welcome the opportunity to talk with you about his performance.
If you offer, and the employee turns you down, let it be and ask him to set up a time in future to hold the conversation.
Think of feedback as a two-way dialogue, not a one way street
Open the discussion by asking your employees for information, for their perspective and for their feelings. Help them to reflect on their performance, what they think they did well, and where they think they can improve. Encourage them to think about why they behave in particular ways in particular circumstances. Encourage them to think about how they could do things differently and what learning supports could help them.
Your goal is to explore together ways for your employees to improve and succeed. (And remember the first suggestion: Don't assume you're right.)
Build a relationship of trust with your employees
Your employees need to know that you have their best interests at heart (balanced of course by a concern for the organization's best interests and its stakeholders' best interests). You need to be a coach more than a teacher. They need to know you are there to help them develop and succeed, not to judge or condemn them. Work on building that relationship, and your feedback dialogues will be much easier and smoother.
Create an environment where it's ok to not be perfect
Be human with your employees. Be open about your challenges and the areas you're working towards improving. Apologies when you make mistakes. Accept the apologies of others. Assume everyone is just trying to do their best.
Help your employees be their best and achieve their potential.
Feedback can be a gift
When we do it well, feedback can be a gift we give our employees and ourselves.
It helps us all learn by allowing us to share our perspectives, knowledge and experience. And it's a vital part of the ongoing conversation about expectations, performance and development that is best-practice performance management.
With this point in mind, ask your employees to engage in a feedback dialogue with you about the way you give feedback. Their responses may surprise you.