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The proof is in the pudding. Most managers don’t know how to give feedback effectively.

A survey conducted by Interact found that 69% of managers are uncomfortable communicating with employees at all (?!) while 37% responded that they’re uncomfortable giving direct feedback about employee performance.

That’s a wide divergence from what employees report they want and need to be successful in their roles. According to OfficeVibe, 96% of employees want to receive feedback regularly. In fact, 92% of respondents in a recent Zenger and Folkman survey agreed with the assertion, “Negative (redirecting) feedback, if delivered appropriately, is effective at improving performance.”

As leaders in our organizations, how do we bridge this gap?

By training your front-line people to give employee feedback effectively. 

When I coach people on providing feedback, these are my 5 main areas of focus for continuous and constructive feedback.

1. Have Difficult Conversations ASAP

Although our brains are wired to avoid conflict, honesty and accountability is the only way to effectively communicate with employees. 

Everyone loves to hear positive feedback, but it can feel emotionally fraught to sit down with a team member and tell them where they’re falling short. 

No one wants to receive negative feedback, or be told they’re not doing a good job, but what is the alternative?

In my experience coaching managers and leaders, I’ve found that most managers are resistant to having difficult conversations because they don’t want people to “feel bad” and worry they’ll respond negatively to critical feedback.

Consequently, managers don’t address their concerns directly with a team member. By the time they come to me for help, the underperformance has reached such a dire state that they feel there is no pathway to get back on track!

Timely feedback is critical!

Remember, the intent is truly to support a team member to be successful. So frame the conversation with that intent. Approach with empathy (you don’t know what’s going on in people’s lives) and be direct and clear. 

The cost of failing to address challenges and provide clarity is too high. According to Gallup, 98% of employees will fail to be engaged if their manager gives them little or no feedback. Therefore, effective feedback is crucial for driving high performance and employee engagement.

It might feel uncomfortable to begin with, but employees will tell you loud and clear: they want this feedback, and they want the opportunity to address concerns. Ultimately, constructive criticism is beneficial to the employee.

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2. Capture All Goals, Expectations, And Feedback In Writing

The number one way to remove ambiguity from expectations is to write them down somewhere easily accessible by all parties. This applies not only to feedback but overall goals and expectations for team members. 

It’s best practice for managers to have regularly scheduled 1:1s with each of their direct reports, ideally on a weekly basis. My suggestion is to use a 1:1 template that is updated in advance of the recurring meeting to keep all parties aligned and on track. 

Using a template helps organize the conversation, clarify priorities, and track progress against goals over time. It’s also an excellent way to prepare a direct report for an upcoming feedback conversation. You can find a version of a 1:1 meeting template here on People Managing People.

Although this is a great use of time for a 1:1, there are times managers will need to meet separately with a team member to debrief an incident or have a formal performance discussion. 

Here’s how to approach this kind of conversation:

  • Organize the feedback into at least 3, but no more than 5, themes with supporting examples of each area of underperformance or behavior to address. 
  • State the impact this underperformance or specific behavior has on customers, stakeholders and fellow co-workers.
  • Be specific as possible, with specific examples of what you have observed, and what you would like to see instead.
  • Solicit input from the employee, including their suggestions on how things can be improved and what commitments they can make going forward.
  • Affirm your support for the employee, that your goal is to make them successful and that you are there to provide resources and guidance along the way.
  • Establish next steps, providing takeaways and action items that are clear to both parties.

When having a more formal conversation, be sure to follow up with a written summary via email. 

I like to use a script starting with: “I’d like to recap our conversation today by summarizing what we discussed and what steps we will take moving forward.” 

This confirms alignment between manager and team member and provides a reference to look back on.

3. Remove Ambiguity: Address Underperformance By Identifying The Gap

In some roles, it’s easy to identify areas of underperformance. For example, a salesperson is either meeting their quota or not. An employee in a helpdesk role might have a certain number of tickets to close per day.

However, for some roles, results and overall performance can be a less tangible. What about an employee in Finance or HR?

It can be a challenge for managers to describe exactly what is not going right for one of their direct reports, especially when it involves soft skills. But specificity and clarity are crucial for improvement.

The Crucial Accountability Model offers a straightforward way of doing so: 

  • Describe the expectation
  • Describe what you are observing that differs from expectation
  • The space therein is referred to as “the gap”.

The conversation to follow should center around what the employee must do to close that gap. 

Do they need additional resources or guidance? Is it a matter of upskilling?

In order to support the employee in fully meeting expectations, the picture of what success looks like must be clear for them.

4. Leverage The Science Of The Brain

David Rock, founder of the NeuroLeadership institute, introduced the SCARF model as a reference tool for collaborating with others, including giving and receiving feedback. 

The idea is simple: if the brain perceives what you're about to say as a social threat, it will move into an “Away state”, i.e. a type of fight or flight mindset, and prevent the employee from processing what you’re about to tell them.

This article on research from the NeuroLeadership Institute provides a summary:

"The fundamental organizing principle of the brain is a “minimize danger, maximize reward” function that is designed to keep us safe from anything perceived as a threat. When we feel threatened, we shut down, and that’s what happens when we’re given feedback in an ineffective way. The more we understand how our brain works and reacts to the world around us, the better we can be at delivering feedback.”  

According to the SCARF model, the 5 domains that can be most socially triggering are:

Status – our relative importance to others.

Ex: “Am I valued? Does my opinion matter?”

Certainty – ability to see what lies ahead. next.

Ex: “What does the future hold for my role or for the company?”

Autonomy – our sense of control over events. 

Ex: “Am I given the tools to drive my own outcome? Am I able to make my own decisions?”

Relatedness – how safe we feel with others.

Ex: “Can I trust those around me? Am I a part of the team?”

Fairness – Perception of equitable treatment.

Ex: “Am I treated the same as my colleagues?”

If a negative response triggers the brain into an “Away state”, the employee will be distracted, unsettled, and likely won’t remember much of what you tell them next. 

The goal is to approach the conversation and frame the feedback so the employee’s brain goes to a “Toward state”. Now the brain is able to think clearly, receive insights and problem solve.

A few suggestions on creating a Toward state for feedback:

  • Provide a heads up and a clear agenda in advance of the meeting
  • The feedback session should be held face-to-face (or over Zoom) so that the employee see the manager’s body language and facial expression
  • Ask the employee if it’s a good time to have a feedback conversation
  • Approach the conversation from a perspective of how you can support
  • Provide positive feedback as well, let the employee know what they’re doing well.

5. Foster A Culture Of Continuous Feedback And Celebrate Wins

Feedback culture is a fluid, two-way exchange between employees as well as employees and management. The end goal is a safe space where employees feel comfortable voicing their concerns and suggestions, and employers are able to express feedback constructively.” - 15Five

A continuous feedback culture means that feedback does not begin and end with performance reviews. It means that leaders and employees alike ask for feedback on an ongoing basis, and the organizational culture is such that it’s the norm to discuss feedback frequently.

This means coaching your leaders to ask for regular feedback from their reports. The benefits of this strategy are many:

  • Creates an environment of trust 
  • Allows for proactive addressing of areas of concern
  • Improves the communication skills of both managers and team members
  • Empowers employes to take charge of their own development by being able to address challenges.

Working toward a culture of continuous feedback needn’t be a big, formal initiative. It starts with your leaders giving and asking for feedback on a regular basis. At my current company, we practice this in the following ways:

  • Encourage managers to recognize and reward employees for great work, both privately and publicly, using our Slack “shout-outs” channel.
  • Coach managers on asking for feedback regularly and thanking team members when it’s given
  • Provide a section of performance reviews dedicated to manager feedback.

Frequent check-ins between manager and direct report are key in keeping the communication open and flowing between all parties.

Do You Have Feedback?

Feedback is a critical part of performance management. Use the above ideas to equip the leaders and managers in your organization to properly administer and ask for feedback.

The number one thing to remember is to have constructive conversations early and have them often. 

This will allow your organization to get ahead of issues before they become unmanageable, while also driving higher performance and employee engagement

Open and honest communication brings us one step closer to our workforce reaching its fullest potential.

And remember, feedback is a two-way street. Always be open to feedback from your team members about how you can improve as a manger, leader or organization in general. 

Further reading:

By Alana Fallis

Alana is currently managing People Ops at Quantum Metric, a remote tech-start up. Currently living in Tampa, she is a former actress turned HR practitioner with a couple of curious stops along the way. Recently she achieved a Brain-Based Coaching Certification from the NeuroLeadership Institute. She is driven by learning about human behavior and exploring how we can make the work experience valuable for employees beyond a paycheck.