How to Make Workplace Feedback as Effective (and Painless) as Possible

Giving feedback to employees ranks among the toughest challenges managers face no matter how experienced they are, but it’s a powerful tool when used in a structured and thoughtful way, Success Labs Senior Project Manager Gloria West says.

“No matter how long they’ve been doing the job, it seems like people consistently struggle with this,” West shared in a presentation for the Baton Rouge chapter of the Association for Talent Development. “And quite frankly, they should. It’s not easy to tell another adult human being when they’re doing something inappropriate or if their performance or their results just aren’t cutting it.”

Even though it can be difficult, feedback is an essential part of any supervisor’s toolbox.

At its core feedback is the act of providing information to an individual or group about their behavior, performance or results. Workplace feedback can take a number of forms, ranging from coaching and performance reviews to less-formal conversations about career paths or other office dynamics. It can be positive feedback, pointing out good work by an employee, or constructive feedback, offering insights into how a worker can improve.

West says both types of feedback are essential because they help employees understand the need for improvement and serve as the primary catalyst for overcoming problems ranging from minor difficulties to major workplace issues.

“As leaders, as people, it’s our responsibility to help others be as successful as they can,” she says. “It’s a key skill for supervisors and managers.”

Read on for West’s advice on how to make feedback work better for your organization.

More Is More with Positive Feedback

Although research has found that workers respond more strongly to positive feedback, West says it remains one of the most neglected areas of workplace leadership. West says it’s important for supervisors to acknowledge when they notice an employee doing something well, even if it’s not a spectacular feat. “Those employees that are quietly meeting your expectations, give them positive feedback,” she says.

When delivering praise, West says to be specific about what the employee is doing right. Empty platitudes can be meaningless or, worse, come off as condescending.

Occasionally positive feedback runs counter to the culture of a workplace and can be interpreted as insincere. In these cases West suggests asking open-ended but specific questions about something positive the employee has achieved. For example, when an employee does something creative, innovative or challenging, ask that person “What inspired you to do that?”

“Let the positive feedback come out of their own mouths,” West says. “It builds confidence and lets them know that their boss is interested in what they do and what they have to say.”

Be as Specific as Possible

This is especially important for constructive feedback. West says that because the process of delivering critical comments can be awkward, managers will often use generalizations when delivering feedback. That can lead to confusion and ultimately a wasted opportunity to pass on critical information that the employee needs to improve.

“Specifics help us give feedback in a way that’s meaningful,” she says. “If you’re doing something wrong and I’m talking about it in generalities, it’s unlikely that you’re going to get that message.”

When explaining issues to employees, West suggests using detailed language to clearly illustrate the problem you have with their performance. For example, rather than merely saying to an employee that he is often disrespectful when assigned new tasks, enumerate his specific reactions to assignments and how they are problematic. The detailed feedback is harder to refute and more likely to lead to positive change.

How to Share Constructive Feedback

When providing constructive feedback, West advises managers to follow a set of guidelines to keep the sessions productive and fair.

  • Plan ahead. Set parameters for the discussion before you meet with the employee. Anticipate possible reactions to the feedback you plan to provide, and imagine steps you could take to keep the meeting on track or steer it back into a more productive zone. If you find the discussion going off the rails, calmly restate what you want to achieve with the meeting and see if you can get it back on track.
  • Stay professional. To maintain the dignity of the employee, take every step you can to conduct a constructive feedback session in private and focus on the issue at hand rather than the person. “They are a human being,” West says. “They have dignity, they have self-worth, and you’re challenging that self-worth when you give them feedback.”
  • Be purposeful. Don’t just complain. Be sure that you’re providing feedback that helps the employee become more successful and effective in the future. “That’s something that needs to be conveyed: You’re concerned about whatever is going on,” she says. “Maybe it’s holding them back, maybe they’re about to get fired. Whatever that is, it has a purpose and a path forward.”

How to Receive Constructive Feedback

Receiving constructive feedback can be even trickier than doling it out. “I don’t like getting constructive feedback. I don’t know anybody who does,” West says. “But we all need it and we all appreciate it when it’s done well because it helps us.”

There a few actions employees as well as supervisors can take to increase the likelihood of prompting a professional reaction to feedback, even if it can be emotionally difficult to receive. First, West suggests taking a step back to consider whether you are acting in a way that makes others want to continue to give you feedback. Once you are in a proper state of mind, consider taking these actions:

  • Assume positive intent. Start with the assumption that the person giving you feedback is doing so with the intention of helping you and that they’ve taken steps to maintain your dignity and to be as specific and constructive as possible.
  • Accept the feedback. Listen intently to the feedback and avoid a knee-jerk defensive response. Doing so does not mean you agree with the criticism, but avoiding a hostile posture will at least allow for the possibility of an exchange that could prove helpful. At a minimum you can say “Thank you for the feedback,” West says.
  • Act. Even if you disagree with the feedback, it’s clear that at the very least there is a difference of perception about your job performance. It’s up to you to determine a productive path forward by either examining the situation more closely or asking constructive questions. Doing nothing will not make the problem go away.

Giving and receiving feedback well is challenging, but it’s worth the effort. Try these tips to get conversations flowing among members of your team.

Success Labs is a leadership development and management consulting firm in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. For more than 25 years, our expert team of consultants has worked with hundreds of companies to explore their business potential and improve their company and cultural performance. Contact us to get proactive about your people strategy.