5 secrets for giving better employee feedback

By Kayleigh Tanner

When you think about giving feedback to your employees, what’s the first thing you think about? Chances are, you dread the awkward conversation. Lots of managers go so far as to avoid giving employee feedback altogether, especially when it’s negative. It’s human nature - we don’t want to make others feel bad, so we avoid those difficult conversations and instead sweep issues under the rug. 

If this all sounds familiar, it’s time to change your ways. In this post, we’ll reveal our five secrets for giving better employee feedback. 

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1. Be direct

If you need to give negative feedback, it can be tempting to tiptoe around it. But your employees know when you’re avoiding an issue, and they will appreciate you being direct. This means addressing the matter upfront and not stalling for time.

92% of employees agree that negative feedback, when delivered appropriately, is effective at improving performance, so there’s no need to worry about raising constructive criticism. An easy approach is simply to make it the first thing you speak about. Starting the conversation with “I wanted to talk about x” or “John gave me some feedback on project y that I’d like to share with you” means that you can go straight into the conversation. Otherwise, it will build unnecessary anxiety for your employee, who may be wondering what’s coming. 

2. Think about your tone

Think about the difference between these two phrases:

“Kira told me that she noticed a few mistakes in your last report. I know this is unusual for you, so I was hoping you could give me some context around that?”

“I was extremely disappointed to hear from another manager that your last report was completely wrong. This is obviously unacceptable, and I won’t tolerate this again.”

We’ve all heard the phrase “It’s not what you say, but how you say it,” and that is never more true than when you’re delivering feedback to an employee. As a manager, you have the power to set the tone of the conversation, and you’re responsible for not making a mountain out of a molehill and equally, not downplaying a serious problem.

Looking at the conversation openers above, you will see that while the content is the same, the tone is completely different. The first is non-confrontational, concerned and laying out the facts without judgement. The second is likely to make your employee feel anxious and worried, and doesn’t give them a chance to explain themselves.

When delivering any feedback, ensure that your tone is not accusatory, aggressive or confrontational, and give your employee the opportunity to provide context or set the record straight (the right agile performance management tools will help you with this). This leads into our next trick… 

3. Encourage a two-way dialogue

… ensuring you hold two-way conversations. No employee wants to listen to a torrent of feedback without having the opportunity to respond, so it’s vital that managers and employees alike get to have their say. 

As a manager, you may need to raise some difficult topics. However, it’s vital that you then invite your employee to share their thoughts about the situation. If you bring up a performance issue, it is likely that your employee can offer a unique insight, whether that’s external issues, personal problems or some hidden context.

The more you can support a two-way dialogue, the more productive your conversations will be. Your employees will respect your reasonable approach to perceived performance issues, and you will benefit from greater openness and honesty.

4. Give positive feedback

Unsurprisingly, almost 7 out of 10 employees say that they would work harder if they felt that their efforts at work were better recognized. Four out of 10 employees are actively disengaged when they get little feedback, so taking the time to recognize achievements and accomplishments is vital to maintain a high level of engagement across your organization.

As much as employees like to hear positive feedback, managers can often find it surprisingly difficult to raise, especially when they’re not used to it. A good way to deliver positive feedback is to start small, with casual comments in the moment, such as “Nice work on project X!” or “That was your best presentation yet!”. You can then build up to more structured positive feedback in your performance conversations.

The trick with positive feedback is to ensure it’s specific so as not to sound disingenuous. There’s a big difference between saying “You’re so good with people!” and “I wanted to commend you on your excellent phone manner - in fact your customer feedback shows that your customers really appreciate your calm, efficient approach to problem solving.”

5. Keep track of performance conversations

Virtually everyone has experienced coming into an annual appraisal, only to have absolutely nothing from the previous year’s conversation discussed (this is why we suggest implementing a continuous performance management approach). If you were asked to work on your organizational skills, for instance, it’s highly likely that both you and your manager will have forgotten this by the time your next appraisal comes around, making these performance conversations a little redundant.

Of course, if this becomes a pattern, it erodes everyone’s trust in the performance management process. Whether positive or negative, managers should ensure that they record all feedback in their performance management system. This could be informal, in-the-moment comments, quick discussions as part of a monthly check-in or even comments from coworkers on the employee’s performance. This makes your life much easier when it’s time for annual appraisals, when you can look back on a whole bank of feedback and information about your employee’s performance.

Systematically recording feedback in your performance management system also empowers you to identify trends early. For instance, perhaps you asked your employee to improve their product knowledge. You can track your conversations over the year to see whether or not the employee is demonstrating better knowledge, or whether you need to intervene.

An integrated performance management system, such as Totara Perform, sits alongside your learning management system to allow you to link useful learning and resources to performance records, driving engagement and ensuring that employees know exactly where they stand and how to improve their performance at any point throughout the year.

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If you're looking for a better way to collect, record and share employee feedback, it's time to take a look at our performance management system.