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Great managers provide constructive and valuable employee feedback

Giving feedback at work is often difficult. Many managers and supervisors put off conducting evaluation and performance reviews because they are uncomfortable giving feedback, especially when it is negative. Most employees want to do a good job and want to know sooner rather than later when they are doing something wrong. Feedback should center on employee behavior and be described clearly without attack. Managers and employees should have common goals and find the most effective ways to achieve them.


Do prepare

Determine what it is you want to say to your employee, whether you are conducting a yearly review or responding to a problem. With periodic reviews, assess performance over a period of time, not just your latest annoyance. Being late three times in one week is very different than three times in a year. Consider performance in all areas, and then go over strengths and weaknesses. If this is a session to address an immediate problem, then identify the problem in objective terms. Think about what you want to accomplish in giving the feedback. Then work on how best to say it.

Do say things in a way the listener can hear them

Think about the listener. Ask yourself “Is this person sensitive?” If so, then spend time leading up to your feedback, perhaps pointing out something positive first. “Dave, I appreciate your efforts on the Jones Report, the format really makes sense. When I read the results, however, the conclusions weren’t clear and the bottom line got lost. I’d like you to rework the last three pages, relating each conclusion to the bottom line.”

If the listener tends to put the blame on others, you can pre-empt that by saying something like, “Leslie, I know that each team member had a part in this report being late, but I’d like to focus on how you contributed to it, so we can all learn from this.”

When an employee gets defensive, you can start with “Ed, we all know there are problems with the Davis Project, what do you think some of the issues are?”

In all cases, listen to your employee’s responses. Let them know your understand their objections and concerns. Repeat or summarize what they say to indicate that you do understand, even if you don’t agree. You will get more compliance when the employee feels understood. 

Do be clear and specific in describing the targeted behavior

Negative feedback or criticism should simply imply, “Stop what you’re doing and do something else.” Let the employees know what they have done wrong and give them ways to correct it. “Carmen, you’ve missed the last three deadlines on the sales report and it has delayed us getting the information to the district supervisor” is better than, “Your attitude has been awful, you don’t care about getting things done. I’m tired of your slacking off and you had better change.” The clearer and more objective you are, the more likely you will get a change in behavior. Vague and negative statements yield more hard feelings and fewer good results.

Do include positive feedback

It is easier for people to hear the negative if you include some positives. When you do that you are letting them know that they have done some things well. This helps people put the negative into perspective. “OK, I did a good job on the writing, but I need to work on the statistics and graphs” is a better takeaway than, “Well I guess I screwed that up, I can’t do anything right.”

Do set expectations for correcting problems

Remember that the goal of giving feedback is to get a change in behavior, so it is important that employees understand what was wrong and how to correct it. Make sure they know what you want them to do. Take time to have your employees clarify what you have said. Ask them how they see themselves handling things in the future. Once you feel they understand, make sure they have the ability to comply.

If you don’t think they have the skills, then come up with a plan that enables them to perform the task. Make sure that the next steps are clear before the meeting ends. “So Pat, we’re agreed that you’ll take the writing course next month, and you’ll focus on being more concise in your summary writing.”


Do not procrastinate

If someone has done something wrong, it is best to correct it as soon as possible, especially when the employee will be doing the same task again. Saving things up for formal reviews can leave the employee confused and sometimes without an opportunity to correct the behavior. Performance reviews or yearly evaluations should also be completed on time. Reviews and evaluations cause anxiety for supervisors and employees; leaving them to the last minute or putting them off indefinitely is not helpful. Put time and thought into the reviews and get them done.

Do not scream or use inappropriate language

Yelling when you’re angry might make you feel good for a few minutes, but it accomplishes little else and makes the recipient feel hurt and angry, and will make them defensive, which in turn can anger you further. If you are angry with someone because they’ve done something that has impacted your work, it is best to let that anger settle and then determine what you need to say. Negative emotions should not spill over into feedback.

Do not attack anyone’s character

Name calling and labeling are judgmental and leave the receiver hurt and angry, the same as yelling and are not helpful. Stick to the facts and avoid evaluative language. Saying, ”Logan, you are lazy and unmotivated. Your work space is a mess and you never care about doing a good job” will leave Logan feeling bad and having no clear idea idea what he has done wrong, but figures you don’t like him. “Logan, you didn’t complete this month’s sales report and I have had two complaints about your desk being disorganized, making it hard for someone to fill in for you. If you need help with the data for the report, check with me and I’ll help you figure it out. I would also like you to clean up your desk before you leave each day,” is clear and leaves Logan knowing what he needs to do.

Do not generalize or overwhelm

In giving feedback, it might be easy to generalize, to use terms like “always” and “never” but it is rare for that to be the case. If the employee can cite an exception, then your feedback lacks credibility. You will accomplish more when your feedback is accurate. Avoid assumptions and piling up a list of transgressions. Focus on one to three targeted behaviors for change in a single feedback session.

Do not criticize anyone in public

This might sound obvious, but when you are upset with an employee’s behavior, it can be easy to reprimand on the spot. This will embarrass your employee and will make you look like the bad guy, especially if you yell. You must be respectful of others. So if you must correct someone, call them aside, or into your office saying, “Pat, can I see you for moment?” If you end up criticizing someone in public, offer a timely apology. It is just not OK to do this.

Jumping cartoon

While giving feedback at work can be difficult or awkward, when delivered well it can lead to more productivity and improves the work environment. When you prepare, considering your employee and how you think they will receive the feedback, you can accomplish your goal of improving employee performance. Avoid showing anger or criticizing in public. Be respectful. Catch people being good, don’t just focus on what is wrong. Be clear about what you have observed and what you expect. It is good to have a plan when the feedback session is over, so you both agree on what happens next. Most people want to do well and appropriate feedback can help you and your employee do just that.

More expert advice about Career Success as a Manager

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Mary Kelly Blakeslee, Ph.D.Retired Psychologist

I am a recently retired Psychologist. I had a private practice since 1985, first in Springfield, then Summit New Jersey. My practice consisted of individual and couples therapy, with adolescents and adults, covering issues of depression and anxi...

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