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How to provide effective employee feedback

It may be hard to do, but delivering employee feedback—both negative and positive—can help employees perform better.

3-minute read

“Please close the door and sit down.”

It’s not what most employees want to hear from their boss. It’s also what a lot of bosses dread doing.

Feedback is a strong tool for promoting employee engagement and an essential part of performance management. But feedback need not be that formal annual review many of us associate with the practice. It can be done regularly throughout the year, according to Adam Nalepa, a Senior Business Advisor with BDC Advisory Services.

Nalepa, who helps entrepreneurs structure their human resources management, says regular feedback is an important part of a well-run company. He says entrepreneurs should start by looking at their company’s current ways of letting their workers know how they’re doing.

“Does your company allow for regular feedback? Do employees and managers feel comfortable and safe providing and receiving feedback?”

With the initial questions posed, below are the next steps to follow when giving feedback to your employees.

Employee criticism needs to be very specific. It can’t be ambiguous or subjective.

Establish clear goals for employees

Before you can provide effective feedback, it’s important to provide employees with clear goals and to communicate them.

We advise using S.M.A.R.T. guidelines for objectives, goals that are Specific (S), Measurable (M), Agreed upon (A), Realistic (R), and Time-bound (T).

SMART goals will clearly spell out what needs to be done, by when and how you will measure it.

Setting SMART goals will provide you with a clear baseline from which to provide your employees with feedback.

SMART goal setting approach

Key component Objective
  • What is a specific task?
  • State what is to be done in positive terms: with whom, where and how. Define the task clearly to avoid multiple interpretations.
  • What are the standards or parameters?
  • Establish quantifiable and clearly defined metrics. Examples of metrics: quantity, quality, cost and time.
Agreed upon
  • Has each task been agreed upon?
  • Meet and review, discuss and sign off.
  • Is the task feasible?
  • Ensure variables influencing success are within each employee’s control.
  • What are the start and end dates?
  • Set clear deadlines, timeframes and time periods.

Giving feedback: Focus on performance, not personality

Remember that the purpose of giving feedback is to improve the performance of your employees, not to discourage them. You are also not trying to change your employee’s personality.

When you point out what an employee has done wrong, it’s important to bring out details. It can’t simply be a blanket statement about bad work, says Nalepa. “Employee criticism needs to be very specific. It can’t be ambiguous or subjective.”

Example of effective employee feedback

The following exchange addresses an employee’s lateness. It sticks to the facts and avoids veering into subjectivity.

Tom, you said you were going to send me an email and have the project completed by 11 this morning. I did not receive that email from you. It is now 1 p.m. What happened?

Example of ineffective employee feedback

In contrast, this exchange is one that gets personal and subjective, and would offer the wrong approach to feedback.

Tom, you're not a part of this company. You're always going on about getting things on time. But now I see it's not true.

The second one ends up being a feeling, with no concrete data or supporting evidence. Nalepa says managers who detail aspects of an employee’s performance and not their personality will find more openness on the receiving end.

“This is about tackling the problem, not the person. If you step away from pointing fingers by really isolating the issue, it will go a long way with people not feeling like they're being targeted.”

Don’t avoid the hard conversations

It’s normal to sometimes want to avoid the hard conversations that can come with providing employee feedback. “A lot of leaders and managers feel uncomfortable doing it,” says Nalepa.

A Harvard Business Review survey puts numbers to that. It found 44% of managers agreed that delivering negative feedback is stressful, with 21% admitting that they avoided it altogether.

Nalepa says employee feedback should not be avoided. “No matter how busy you are, or how uncomfortable it can feel, it’s important—both for the individual and the organization,” he says. Criticism helps employees better themselves but, just as importantly, it improves an organization’s overall performance.

Create a regular feedback loop with your employees

The year-end appraisal meeting—where an employee sits down with their boss for an assessment of their work—may not be the most effective feedback tool.

“There’s a trend among businesses, where many are turning away from annual assessments. They use more consistent meetings instead, with the feedback loop being in near real-time,” says Nalepa.

He explains that more frequent, casual assessments can be a good motivator. “The person being assessed can hear that they're doing well or that there are certain things they need to address. It's also a good chance for the leadership and employees to connect and build that rapport even more.”

Employee feedback loop

Put yourself in your employee’s shoes when giving them feedback

If you want criticism to be well received, empathy is key. A manager who communicates a clear message, but also thinks about how their employee is receiving that news, will likely be more effective.

“It all comes down to empathy,” says Nalepa. “As the leader, try to put yourself in the shoes of the individual hearing that feedback. That will go a long way to ensuring that the individual hears it.”

Think, too, about how much negative feedback you might be giving your employees. “If you’re providing only negative feedback to everyone, that culture is going to probably be negative. And your workers are going to become a little worried.”

As the leader, try to put yourself in the shoes of the individual hearing that feedback. That will go a long way to ensuring that the individual hears it.

How to give positive feedback

Positive feedback is a strong tool for promoting employee engagement and an essential part of performance management. Just like delivering negative feedback, positive feedback needs to be specific and focused on performance, not personality.

Try and get away from platitudes like “Good job!” or “We’re pleased with your work.” That provides little to the employee.

Tell the employee, instead, what elements you most appreciate from, say, that successful report they just delivered.

That positivity will be a boost, says Nalepa. “It reconfirms that the individual is doing well, promotes positive behaviour and shows what you’re trying instill within the organization.”

Remember that your negative feedback has a strong emotional effect on the person receiving it. According to a Harvard Business Review article, employees react up to six times more strongly to negative comments than to positive ones. It cites a study that suggests that repetitive negative feedback has a destructive impact on employee engagement.

A simple strategy is to start a feedback discussion by outlining some of the employee’s accomplishments and show sincere appreciation for their efforts before pointing to areas that need improvement. Nevertheless, don’t let positive comments bury the purpose of the conversation and avoid sending mixed messages.

Be discreet and follow up

Nobody wants to receive criticism in public. Some don’t even like to be praised in front of others. Keep that in mind when you give feedback. Choose a place where you can be private. The conversation should be comfortable, not one where the employee is feeling intimidated or exposed. Remember that delivering feedback is also an exercise in retaining your workforce, not driving them away.

Finally, after the feedback, make sure to follow up and provide support to help the employee meet the goals you’ve set together.

Free employee goal setting template

Download our free employee goal setting tool to help employees understand what you expect from them and how their work is tied to your wider business strategy.

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