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Guide to Giving Effective Feedback

By: Nicholas Schmitz, PMP, LSSBB

March 4, 2020

It turns out, even if a manager (or employee) does not have something nice to say, he or she should say it anyway. According to a Gallup report, employees would rather receive negative feedback than no feedback at all.

An ignored employee is twice as likely to be disengaged at work as an employee whose manager focuses on his or her weaknesses, and strives to help overcome them. Delivering effective feedback to employees can achieve many benefits that lead to improved job satisfaction, business achievements and increased engagement. Likewise, receiving feedback from employees can offer invaluable insights that can help leaders become stronger and more efficient in their roles.

Studies have shown that an employee’s preference for the type of feedback they receive will evolve along with their experience level. Early in their career, positive feedback creates the foundation for confidence in their role, whereas experienced employees may find negative feedback more valuable as they look to improve and advance in their career.

Why, then, is it so problematic to for many managers to provide effective feedback? Many managers say they dislike giving feedback and don’t believe it is as effective as it could or should be. Those on the receiving end often say they do not get enough feedback to help them apply it effectively. Strong emotions on both sides can make the conversation that much more complicated and intimidating.

What follows are some tips to improve the way feedback is delivered in the workplace:

Formula for success

Here is a simple formula that a manager may use as a starting point (it will help move the focus from the person and direct it toward an action): “When you [X], I feel [Y].” [X] specifies a specific action and clarifies what is being discussed/addressed. [Y] specifies an emotion, creating interest and influencing future behavior. For example: “Dan, when you repeatedly make mistakes when assembling trays, I feel frustrated.”

It is important for managers not to assume they know all the details; however. They should also avoid projecting assumptions onto the other person. If there is a focus on facts and the feedback begins with “I” statements, that may help the other person feel less defensive.

Focus on outcomes

Task outcomes should be the starting point for delivering employee feedback. When feedback revolves around specific departmental goals, it becomes an opportunity to solve a problem rather than to simply criticize on a personal level. Also, when the focus of the feedback is on an employee’s development, the communication becomes helpful instead of punitive; feedback is then a manager’s gift of investing in the employee’s career and professional growth.

Give feedback often

Effective feedback comes in many forms. While the annual performance review is usually held at a specific corporate-mandated time, many other opportunities to deliver feedback arise throughout the year (and even throughout the day, week and month). Therefore, managers must be willing to take advantage of those opportunities to communicate with their team.

Feedback is most effective when provided shortly after an event or issue arises, ideally, within 24 hours (one caveat: It is not wise to vent anger under a veil of providing feedback. When negative emotions run high, it is usually best to allow time to cool down before discussing the event). Praise for good performance should also be delivered promptly and regularly. Experts agree that the yearly performance appraisal is the worst time to surprise an employee with negative feedback because the employee may already be anxious at that time and may feel blindsided. Ideally, there should be no surprises during a formal review because there will have been continual feedback delivered all year long.

Managers should practice giving feedback often, so it will become a habit. Consistent communication will improve relationships and trust, and employee performance will typically follow as a result. Once continual communication is established as a common practice, a lack of feedback will feel uncomfortable for both the manager and employee. When feedback is a part of daily work, it becomes less stressful for the employee and manager, and improved performance tends to arise as a result.

Layer feedback with specifics

Managers should take adequate time to prepare for a feedback session, so they are able to support the feedback with concrete facts, examples, standards and statistics. These supportive references will help demonstrate areas in need of improvement and also back up praise for a job well done.

The goal is to gather evidence that will allow the manager to address the following:

  • Specific behavior. Be specific about what the employee has or has not done, without judging intent. Avoid blanket statements that begin with “You always…” or “You never…”
  • The impact of that behavior. Tell the employee how his or her behavior is affecting you, the team, the customer, the patient or the organization.
  • What the employee should do differently. Employees cannot read their manager’s mind. It is essential for managers to be clear about the changes that need to occur – and why.

Avoid “sandwich criticism”

“Sandwich criticism,” a formerly popular approach of slipping a criticism between two compliments, has fallen out of favor, and for a good reason. First, everyone sees right through it. When used as a way to make it easier to receive negative feedback, the praise becomes diluted. Secondly, delaying the inevitable negative feedback only invokes anxiety, erodes effective communication and places an employee on the defensive.

When a manager meets with an employee to deliver constructive criticism, it is important to be direct, as the following example demonstrates: “Mary, as we both know, things have not been running very smoothly lately. Let’s see how we can address the problem together.” To be effective, the manager’s feedback must be authentic.

Don’t assume you’re right

Even after a manager has collected supportive data, he or she may not have the complete picture. Other people may not see an employee’s behavior or perceived shortcomings in the same way. Furthermore, the other person will have their side of the story. Difficult feedback is not about getting the facts right and assigning blame. Mistakes will happen, but how they are addressed will dictate how readily those mistakes are identified and corrected, now and in the future. Effective feedback is about resolving conflicting views, feelings and values – and reasonable people will differ about all these things.

If a manager has worked with an employee for quite some time, conclusions may be made about that employee’s work ethic and personal approach to problem solving. While such conclusions may come naturally, it’s important not to allow them to lead the manager astray during a feedback session. For instance, saying something like “You are unprofessional” or “You rarely assemble trays correctly” is a recipe for disaster. A character attack provides no information and offers no actionable ideas for change.

A better approach may be, “I know we have discussed this previously, but it seems you are still having some trouble with [x]. What can we do to help overcome that challenge?” Intentions should be made clear to help diminish a defensive reaction. A manager should consider why they want to provide feedback. If the manager is concerned about patient safety issues or the safety of the employee and his or her peers, for example, it is important to lead with that explanation. At the same time, the manager should approach the feedback session with the goal of understanding the other person’s perspective on the situation.

Ask questions

To make feedback sessions a learning experience for both manager and employee, it is important to ask direct questions, such as:

How do you see the situation?
How might you do things differently next time?
What do you think worked, and what could have gone better?
Are there any tools or resources I can provide you to help you in your role?

Such questions establish a supportive atmosphere that encourages effective conversation and engagement. Together, a manager and employee can explore alternative approaches that might produce better results. The more an individual contributes ideas for improving their performance, the more engaged they will be in the outcome.

Continue to follow through

Some people believe that once they have had the conversation, the work is done. Not true! Managers must understand there is a big difference between understanding and changing, and a person’s ability to make that leap requires ongoing support and follow through. It is important to ask, “Now what are the next steps you will take, and how can I support your progress?” At the end of a feedback session, it is also important to ask the employee their thoughts on the conversation. Afterward, a manager should make plans to meet again to discuss the issue and any progress or setbacks along the way.

A manager should also ask his or her employees to provide feedback on their performance as a leader. As uncomfortable as this may be, such feedback can strengthen performance and promote more effective leadership. A couple ways to pose this question without making anyone feel uncomfortable is to ask: “How can I make your job easier?” or “What type of support could I offer to help you perform your job better?” Another approach is to give employees an anonymous survey (let’s face it: not many employees would be bold enough to directly criticize a manager if their name was attached to it).

Managers must remember that the objective of attaining employee feedback is not to draw flattery or outright criticism. Instead, it is to help improve one’s leadership ability. If feedback is coming in the context of a verbal discussion, it is important to resist the urge to argue or become defensive. Instead, thank the person for their feedback and take time to personally consider the information provided.

Whether a manager agrees with the feedback or not, it is important to realize the feedback was delivered according to employee perception.

In conclusion

Increasing the frequency of feedback is a sure-fire way to improve performance and engagement – both at the individual and team level. Still, it is critical that managers understand and address the reasons why people shy away from giving and receiving feedback. Building relationships and trust amongst the team will help reduce feedback-related anxiety, and open the doors to effective communication. When there is understanding and mutual respect, it is easier to have open and direct conversations between leaders and employees.

Everyone can learn to give better feedback more easily and effectively, and focused training and practice can certainly help. Leaders who have developed high levels of emotional intelligence will find themselves well-positioned to conduct feedback sessions with tact, empathy and active listening skills.

The bottom line: effective feedback is one of the most powerful ways in which managers and employees can positively influence outcomes, performance, satisfaction, accountability and engagement.

Nicholas Schmitz, PMP, LSSBB, is President of Schmitz Consulting LLC. He holds a Master’s degree in organization development and change management, as well as a Master’s degree in project management. He also is a certified Project Management Professional and Lean Six Sigma Black Belt.