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Providing Effective Feedback – Tips for Making the Process a More Positive Experience

This article was first published by Coach Newsletter, November 2003
Author: Ilona Birenbaum

Managing staff performance is essential to the success of any organization, yet it is also an area that most managers find to be the most challenging part of their job. “How am I doing?” is one question that is on the minds of many employees. In the last few years, as companies have continued to reorganize and downsize, that question has become even more urgent. The thought of having to provide feedback to staff, however, often sends managers running in the other direction. Why is this so difficult and what can be done to alleviate the discomfort in having these conversations for both managers and employees?

We all realize that knowing that we have done something particularly well and being recognized for it motivates us and encourages us to be successful in the future. Most managers certainly want their employees to be successful, since their own recognition and rewards are tied to the success of their staff. But who wants to be the bearer of bad news? Nobody wants to contribute to de-motivating an employee. And since managers also frequently associate feedback with talking about poor performance, a topic that they are likely to avoid, positive feedback also has a tendency to be ignored.

To make these conversations easier, we have come up with a few tips for providing effective feedback:

  1. Be Specific – when providing feedback, specific information gives an employee a map. It provides them with information that they can act on. Using recent examples makes it much more “real” for the employee, enabling him/her to recall the situation more quickly, thus enhancing the likelihood of a behavior change. Defining what successful performance would look like also gives the employee a much more concrete sense of what is expected. Remember to keep notes of your conversations throughout the year, so you are not scrambling at annual review time.
  2. Do it in a timely manner – offer feedback as soon as possible after observing the situation or behavior. Make sure you choose an appropriate time and place for providing feedback. Always consider, “would I want to have someone share this information with me right now?”. When sharing constructive feedback, always consider that not sharing the information will make the problem worse, or may even be interpreted as approval.
  3. Focus on the behavior, not the person – Make sure to differentiate between your disapproval of the person’s behavior versus your dislike of a personality trait. Employees can become very defensive if they perceive the feedback as a criticism of their personality. Word the situation as asking for something more from the person, rather than something less. For example, instead of saying, “she is disorganized and her meetings tend to drag on”, phrasing that statement as, “she needs to come to meetings with a set agenda and be prepared to cut off discussion that is not pertinent to the agenda at hand” gives the employee an actionable suggestion, while deflecting any criticism from the individual. Again, be prepared to describe what you mean and offer examples.
  4. Discuss one or two areas at most – As you are sitting down to have a conversation, always have the thought “less is more” in the back of your mind. Most employees will tune out if you focus on more than one or two areas to work on. We all realize that there are at least one or two areas that we all can improve in. Nobody wants to hear a laundry list of faults. So, make sure you choose wisely and consider the one or two areas that if changed, would give you the biggest “bang for your buck”. Make sure that you also discuss the impact of the behavior. Employees need to have a good understanding of the impact the behavior has on you the manager, the team, the organization, or their career. Without this information, the person may disregard the feedback and treat it as unimportant. Also consider the extent of the impact. If the impact is insignificant, it may be simply a style difference and not worth mentioning.
  5. Offer support – Demonstrate a sincere interest in helping the employee make improvements. Ask for and listen to the employee’s perspective, but recognize when it is no longer valuable to “rehash” the situation. Be ready to move to action. Don’t be afraid to ask what you can do to help. Make sure that the person understands that feedback is a critical part of growth and development and that you see it as an investment in their future.
  6. And finally, take the time to praise and recognize positive behavior – Look for opportunities to provide positive feedback. Remember, positive recognition goes a long way with employees, especially in tough economic times when financial rewards may not be possible. Don’t forget to tell the person when he/she has made positive strides in addressing the feedback that was provided. As with constructive feedback, be specific and provide examples. For example, don’t just say, “you did a great job at the meeting”. That statement leaves the person wondering as to what, specifically, he/she did well. Instead, phrase it as, “Your presentation was terrific. You conveyed that you understood the client’s issues and offered solutions that they were receptive to”.
  7. Feedback conversations will never be considered at the top of anyone’s list of favorites, but utilizing the above tips should make the conversations easier and more productive for both employees and managers.

Posted By: Ilona Birenbaum

Ilona Birenbaum Ms. Birenbaum is a leadership and organizational consultant and leadership coach with over 20 years of experience and a diverse organizational development background. She is an adjunct professor and coach with American University’s School of Public Affairs’ Key Executive Leadership Program. Her specialties include leadership coaching, facilitation, change management, leadership assessment and development, action learning, performance management, training, strategic planning, and conflict resolution.

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