Feedback That Works: A Leaders’ Guide

Picture of Richard Smith
Richard Smith

Many leaders find delivering feedback challenging and they fail to provide insights that can improve employee performance. But feedback designed to praise accomplishments and prompt positive change is essential to good leadership and to fostering an organizational culture that engages employees and cultivates success.

Here are five guidelines that can help leaders at any level approach feedback conversations with confidence, making sure they are productive and encouraging for employees.

1. Establish team relationships with candor and openness.

The time to let employees know about their responsibilities, or how they’re missing the mark, is not when you place them on a performance improvement plan. To work effectively, members of your team need to feel at ease and comfortable. They need to trust that you will provide them with feedback that will help them grow, develop and be promotable. Connect in ways that feel appropriate to your style, acknowledging that your employees have lives and interests outside of work.

In addition, offer coaching support to your team during unofficial feedback times. Once feedback is given, its important to demonstrate high standards of integrity and professionalism by supporting employees with additional feedback for improvement when they make mistakes. When they succeed, give them credit. Showing that you care enough to provide feedback is important to establishing and maintaining a productive work relationship.

2. Acknowledge that everyone needs feedback…regularly.

I’ve sometimes been told by clients that in their line of work, feedback isn’t necessary or beneficial. That’s not true. Feedback Is industry agnostic. All human beings require feedback, and it’s one of a leader’s most important, ongoing tasks. Early in my career, I had a manager who could hear my conversations with clients because of the proximity of his desk. When I hung up a call, he’d often step over and give me his thoughts. His comments sometimes were, “That was a great call. Well done.” And sometimes he’d make suggestions, saying “Nice job. I think you could have added this…” Or, “Here’s what I would suggest next time you talk with Joe.” These conversations were helpful and kept the dialogue open between us, so that I could ask questions and test ideas. Establish ways to touch base often to talk through suggestions, help solve problems or offer kudos. Determine regular check-ins in whatever format works best for your team and make informal feedback part of the dialogue.

3. Invest in others’ success.

In your conversations with employees, show that you care about the person and not just the product of their efforts. Make it clear that when you offer coaching or constructive comments, your goal is to help your employee succeed and not to make them feel small. When team members demonstrate concern about receiving feedback, it is likely due to prior negative experiences. They may have only received comments about their performance at review time or it was presented in such a way that they felt their job was in jeopardy. When performance conversations are rare, an employee can feel blindsided with news that they aren’t meeting the mark. Make it a goal to provide truthful feedback regularly, delivered with sensitivity and a desire to find solutions.

When an employee understands that their manager is on their side, conversations become collaborative rather than potentially combative.

4. Make feedback specific.

It’s important that feedback is behaviorally specific and allows the person receiving the feedback the opportunity to understand the comments in the context of a situation. Telling an employee that they should develop more strategic relationships is not enough. Providing guidance about how to build more strategic relationships with specific people is best. Situationally specific examples put the focus on an action rather than on a person. This enables an employee to take the feedback not as a personal attack, but rather to view a scenario and discuss suggestions for a different result.

For example, an employee at a communications company was being labeled as difficult to work with by colleagues. In a meeting, the individual was often viewed as dominating conversations and having intense emotions. A productive feedback session regarding this issue would include outlining behavior in a particular meeting and sharing the impression it gave to others. Examples of guidance for choosing more productive behavior in this scenario might include encouraging optimism, keeping a constructive outlook when plans or decisions are thwarted, and ensuring that tone of voice remains calm even in challenging circumstances.  In this way, feedback about a specific situation can help an employee recognize patterns that limit their progress and encourage them to make substantial improvements well beyond it.

5. Be a good listener.

This one is easier said than done. Many leaders want to deliver the message and forget that to be most effective, they have a responsibility to also listen. Here are the four ways I recommend leaders demonstrate that they are truly listening in a feedback moment:

  • Establish appropriately attentive non-verbal behavior by maintaining eye contact and keeping open body posture. Uncross arms and legs and lean in, literally.
  • Summarize and paraphrase to demonstrate understanding. “What I heard you say is…” Allow for corrections if you didn’t interpret meaning correctly.
  • Wait out silences without interrupting. Your employee may be gathering thoughts to share something important. Don’t try to fill the gap.
  • Deliver on what you promise. If you say that you’ll provide information, follow up in a week or connect your employee with another leader, make sure you follow through.
  • Remember that giving feedback is not only important to ensuring employees understand what’s expected of them in their current roles, but also what skills and competencies they need to move into a role with greater responsibilities. Respectful and regular feedback is one of the best ways you demonstrate support of your employees. It benefits both your team and your organization as a whole.

Ready to make regular feedback a part of your leadership team’s commitment to employees? Let’s discuss how to introduce this practice in your organization.