Nine Tips for Giving Good Feedback in the Workplace

Nine Tips for Giving Good Feedback in the Workplace

Nine Tips for Giving Good Feedback in the Workplace 1800 1200 Brook Thorndycraft

This is a surprisingly frequent experience I have as a leadership coach. 

A manager asks for a coaching session to plan how she can let an employee go who has been missing deadlines and submitting work that is not up to expectations. I ask how long this has been going on and what the impacts have been. The manager tells me it’s been months and that she and other members of the team are feeling stressed because they have been picking up the slack. She is fed up and has decided the person is not cut out for their role. 

I ask her what she knows about what is going on for the employee, and she says, “Not very much.” I then ask if she has given him feedback, and she says, “I’ve made general suggestions about how to improve the work and make sure things are on time, but I don’t think I’ve been very direct about what’s going wrong or my frustrations. Giving feedback feels mean and uncomfortable and I wanted to give him the chance to figure it out.” 

I understand it can feel mean and uncomfortable to give direct feedback. But now someone is about to lose their job. 

This is just one reason why it’s important to get comfortable with asking questions and giving feedback. 

In addition to the legal risks of firing someone without a fair process (which I won’t get into in this post), there are huge ethical and strategic reasons why giving feedback is a must in any workplace. 

So what does effective feedback look like? 

Effective feedback:

  • Happens regularly in a way that is integrated into the flow of work
  • Is rooted in empathy and curiosity about what is going on for the person receiving the feedback
  • Believes in our fundamental human capacity to learn and grow and offers support to do so
  • Spends as much or even more time highlighting the things that are going well
  • Goes both ways. It’s easier for people to accept feedback from a leader who is also open to learning from feedback.

A few tips for giving good feedback 

The next time you need to provide feedback take some time to prepare and consider the following nine tips for giving effective feedback.

1. Give feedback regularly and make sure most of it is about what is going well.

In many workplaces people only receive feedback once or twice a year. Often the feedback is connected to a performance evaluation or happens when something goes wrong. In this context, people tend to experience feedback as high stakes. Feedback connected to performance evaluations will determine whether or not they get the raise or the promotion, and when it happens outside of that structure, it is very likely to be bad. 

You can normalize feedback and minimize the feeling of threat by integrating it into the work more regularly and mixing in a large dose of what is going well. Have regular one-on-one and group check ins. Invite people to reflect on what they are feeling good about and share what you think they are doing well. Integrate evaluation into project milestones and encourage people to reflect together on what is going well and what has been tricky or needs work.   

When you integrate feedback (especially positive) more regularly into the workflow people are more likely to let go of some of their fear and shift into a learning mindset. 

Find a way to give positive feedback even when something needs to change! It’s much easier for us to hear and accept constructive feedback when we are also told what we are doing well, and why we are valued.  

Frequent feedback also gives everyone early warning of potential interpersonal problems when they are small and easier to manage. As someone who is often called into workplaces after there has been a major problem, I can tell you that many interpersonal crises are made up of small interactions that happen over a long time and go unnamed. Often leadership missed opportunities to intervene to address harmful behaviour before it escalated. Leaders can decrease conflict by being aware of the small things that happen and giving feedback and setting expectations before those small things grow into something unmanageable.

The same is also true when it comes to giving constructive feedback about job performance.  Research shows that when people are told early and frequently what they are doing well and where there is room for growth–and when they are given the support (training, shadowing, mentoring, and/or more resources) to make changes, they usually will. 

2. Go in prepared to ask questions and listen with curiosity and empathy  

When you approach feedback from a place of curiosity and empathy, you can often learn important information that can lead to better solutions. 

Be prepared to be surprised. We often learn new things about what was going on for the other person when we offer feedback with curiosity. 

For example, why is the person in the story above late with deadlines? Maybe there is something going on in his personal life that is causing him to have trouble getting things done. Or possibly his manager gave him a responsibility on a project that feels big and overwhelming, and he is procrastinating because he feels embarrassed to ask for help. While the outcome of late deadlines might be the same, the reasons under the surface are very different and require different interventions and support. 

Sometimes you might learn new information that shifts your perspective. For example, maybe he missed the deadline because he has several competing priorities on his plate, and he felt that a different project was the most time sensitive. Check your biases – is your way really the right way? What might you be missing? Do you have the same priorities? Do you understand the various pressures the person is experiencing?

3. Be aware of your own feelings and stories you’re telling yourself

How do you feel about the person you need to give feedback to? Do you frequently feel frustrated when you interact with them? Are they someone you just can’t seem to connect with? 

Our brain has a natural tendency toward confirmation bias. This means that we pay more attention to information that confirms what we already believe than to information that challenges it. If I already think that someone is abrasive and rude in meetings, I am more likely to interpret their direct communication as angry or inappropriate. If I am not aware of what I am feeling and the stories I am telling myself about that person, I am likely to give them harsher feedback than I would give to someone I get along with about the same behaviour. This is unfair to the person on the receiving end of my dislike. It’s also a major source of inequitable treatment in the workplace, and a reason why receiving feedback can feel unsafe.  

It is even more important to be aware of how you feel and react when you are under stress or experiencing a trigger. When we are overwhelmed or feeling powerless, we tend to lose our ability to be curious and empathetic. We are more likely to believe our own assumptions about what is going on, and to judge the other person based on those assumptions. 

If you are feeling triggered by the need to give someone feedback, it’s very important to prepare yourself. What helps you stay as emotionally grounded as possible? How can you process your feelings before you are face to face with the person? Is there someone who could help you practice curiosity and check your assumptions? 

4.Be open to receiving and acting on feedback

The best way to encourage people to welcome feedback as a learning opportunity is to encourage it to go both ways. Model a growth mindset. People tend to have a higher degree of trust in leadership that demonstrates a willingness to learn and grow based on feedback. 

Welcome feedback and seek it out. Treat it as a gift that you can learn from. And most importantly, act on it whenever possible. Asking for feedback and then not doing anything with it can actually be worse for trust and morale than never asking for feedback at all.

This does not mean you have to accept all feedback at face value. As a leader you often have to hold a big picture perspective that not everyone is aware of. Some feedback you will receive might not be relevant from that birdseye vantage point. But even the feedback that doesn’t feel immediately relevant can offer you important information about how you are perceived, whether or not people feel aligned with the organization’s priorities, and how you might need to communicate differently. 

5. Set expectations together before there is a problem

Good feedback can start even before anything has happened if you establish clear expectations, norms, values, and responsibilities. 

Whenever possible, involve everyone in setting expectations about how they want to work together. Who is responsible for what? How does everyone want to be accountable to each other? I support many workplaces to establish safe work agreements that integrate the input of everyone on the team. I have found it is much easier to hold people accountable to norms of behaviour or to expectations around their responsibilities when they have willingly agreed to those norms and expectations and see their needs and perspectives reflected in them. 

In situations where it is not possible for people to contribute to expectations and norms, make them clear and transparent right from the start. Offer support for people to be able to meet them. When people are not clear of what is expected and then they receive challenging feedback, it can feel like they have been set up to fail. 

6. Be as clear as possible when you need to give constructive feedback

The stress of receiving constructive feedback can sometimes make it hard to hear and absorb the main message.

For this reason, it is important to be as clear, specific and brief as possible. The following can be a good basic framework for shaping your message.

  1. Is the person receiving the feedback likely to experience it as a threat? If so, take some time to articulate what you appreciate about them and their work or what is important to you about your relationship.
  2. Be as specific as you can about what they did or did not do that you are giving feedback about. Give an example (but not too many) if it is something that has happened more than once.
  3. Let them know clearly how the example has impacted you, other people, the team, and/or the project or organization.
  4. Let them know what you are hoping will happen differently. This can also be an opportunity to open it up for conversation and curiosity about their perspective. They might have creative ideas about how to address the situation. 

7. Ask them what they need and then give them support to succeed

There’s nothing worse that being told you did something wrong and then being sent out to fix it without the necessary skills or resources to do so.  When giving feedback make sure you can have an honest conversation about what the person needs in order to meet expectations. Is there training that might help? Would they benefit from some coaching or mentorship? Are there structural issues that need to be addressed? Do they need a bigger budget? Maybe they need someone to help them or a better system for managing their time. Giving feedback without support sets people up to fail again. 

8. Notice and acknowledge small improvements

After you give someone difficult feedback, make an extra effort to notice the ways they have taken your words to heart and any improvements they have made. Even if the improvement is small, make sure to notice and appreciate it. That’s the best way to ensure that people feel motivated and energized to continue improving.

9. Create a culture where mistakes are encouraged and feedback is understood as a path to growth.

Feedback is very hard for many of us to receive. Most people learned in school that feedback often comes with ranking and comparison and success or failure. We learn that if we succeed new opportunities will open up to us. If we fail those opportunities will disappear. 

But feedback is very important. It is the way we learn, grow and become the people we want to be. Regular and supportive feedback helps people shift out of fear and experience it as an opportunity. You can create a workplace culture where feedback is welcomed, expected and part of the norm rather than something to be feared as a threat.

All of the previous tips help to support the shift to a growth mindset. That being said, many of the reasons people fear feedback are rooted in organizational culture. Changing the culture is a longer and more complex process, but very worth it. Stay tuned for my next blog post on creating a culture of learning and feedback.

To really give good feedback, it helps to get comfortable with conflict and courageous conversations. Check out our upcoming learning opportunities for leaders: Building Emotional Agility and Generative Conflict: Leadership Skills for Healthy Workplaces to help you create an environment of honest communication. You can also sign up for the Big Waves mailing list for special promotions and to be the first to know about the upcoming launch of an at-your-own-pace conflict skills training!