5 tips for giving feedback that employees will actually listen to

giving feedback to employees

As a small business owner, manager, or HR professional, you have probably given feedback to more than a few employees. And, you have probably felt the bewildering blow that comes when your genuine, well-intentioned feedback is met with hostility, indifference, or defensiveness.

If that’s the case, your approach to giving feedback might need a little finessing. Here are five tips for giving feedback that employees will actually listen to (and act on):

Recognize that there are different types of feedback

As we explored in our recent article on giving feedback to an underperforming employee, there are different types of feedback – and not all of them are appropriate for work:

“It’s important to limit constructive feedback to areas the employee has the ability to change – otherwise, you’re just being hurtful. Remember, there’s a difference between feedback and criticism, and only feedback is appropriate in the workplace. To quote Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, ‘Any fool can criticize, condemn, and complain — and most fools do.’”

Before you start giving feedback to an employee, be sure that it’s constructive and/or corrective – the kind that informs the employee about how their actions are affecting others, and offers some ideas on how to correct it and bring about positive change.

Another way to think about feedback is formative versus summative. The goal of formative feedback is to improve an employee’s effectiveness – as opposed to summative feedback, which essentially just tells an employee what they have done wrong. The latter always comes across as a judgment or personal attack.

Be supportive

Very few individuals react positively to having their flaws pointed out. That’s why it’s so important to recognize the challenges of the conversation, and help the employee get what they need out of the conversation. Remember: if they leave the conversation without any gained knowledge or insight, that’s your mistake, not theirs.

To create a supportive environment for the conversation, try the “feedback sandwich”: start and end with a discussion of what the employee is doing well. This gives the feedback a more balanced feel, and makes it less of an attack. It’s also important to employ active listening, and never interrupt – even if the employee gets frustrated or angry. They need to feel heard throughout the conversation.

Make feedback a collaborative process

If you keep the discussion one-sided, it’s a lot easier for the employee to become defensive. Instead, take a collaborative approach: you offer your thoughts, the employee responds to them, you address and discuss any conflict that arises, and then you work together to create a solution to the problem (more on that below).

Thinking of the feedback as a conversation, rather than a disciplinary hearing, will ensure that both parties walk away from the conversation with new insights. You’ll engage the employee and demonstrate that you are interested in their growth.

One easy way to encourage a collaborative tone is to use “I statements” instead of “you statements.” Psychology Today explains this further: “Unless you are praising someone, You-statements are usually combative. Any complaint that starts with a ‘you’ is often hostile and will usually be felt as destructive criticism.”

Develop an actionable plan

Feedback doesn’t end at identifying a problem or behaviour. Simply saying, “I notice that your projects are consistently coming in a week after their deadline,” or “I’m having trouble understanding your progress reports” will leave the employee saying “so what?”

An important part of the feedback process is creating an action plan to correct or improve their performance. In fact, a landmark 1979 study in the Journal of Applied Psychology found that feedback can’t be properly understood unless it includes specific goals, which help to apply the feedback to future performance.

Come to the discussion with some concrete ideas as to what this action plan could be – ideally with examples taken from your own personal experience. However, you need to also be open to ideas or suggestions from the employee as well. Work together to create a list of measurable objectives to get them back on track.

Follow up

Once you create an action plan, you need to create a timeline for each milestone – and commit to further meetings to discuss progress and results.

Following up with an employee on feedback isn’t just about monitoring their process, however. Too often, employees are given constructive feedback and then simply released back into the workplace – and this can lead to low engagement rates and even dissatisfaction. It’s important to keep the process supportive and collaborative from the first conversation to the very last milestone. This will also ensure that the employee is open to further feedback in the future.

See also:
6 things to avoid saying in one-on-ones with your employees
11 ways to give better performance reviews


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