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5 steps to provide feedback that’s helpful, not hurtful

Employees want to hear how they can do better, but it depends how managers deliver comments.

5 steps to provide feedback that’s helpful, not hurtful
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What one skill do you think has the greatest positive impact on workplace culture and performance?

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From my years of helping leaders create a culture of accountability, I have found that the ability to provide feedback directly and respectfully makes the biggest and most immediate positive difference to individuals and organizations.

Contrary to popular belief, most people want to hear how they can improve—as long as that feedback is delivered well. Regrettably, only 26% of employees strongly agree that the feedback they receive is helpful. This means most managers are failing at providing feedback. That’s a huge risk, given the Great Resignation we are experiencing. When managers don’t provide feedback well, it prompts four out of five employees to start looking for a new job.

If you think about what things you excel at, it’s likely that receiving feedback on your performance helped you get to where you are now. Plenty of research shows that well-delivered feedback improves performance. Indeed, 94% of people agree that corrective feedback improves their performance when presented well. Managers can’t afford to wing it or rely on an outdated feedback model when delivering tough messages.

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When it’s connected with affirmations, feedback can succeed because it’s a replicable process. Don’t make your employees wonder what it takes to please you. If you want your people to perform at a high level, provide a steady stream of reaffirming feedback. We are all addicted to the chemical dopamine, which is released in our brains when we are praised. We repeat behaviors that we have been praised for because we instinctively want another dopamine hit.

Moreover, if you fail to deliver timely feedback, your employees’ behavior is unlikely to change. Failing to provide feedback will change nothing. And you only will keep seeing the behavior that you continue to tolerate. If you don’t address problematic behavior, expect it to get worse, because employees take their manager’s silence as tacit approval.

When feedback fails

Notwithstanding the benefits of feedback, research has shown that feedback can hurt performance when delivered poorly or when it comes in the form of a year-end review. Year-end reviews should be about reviewing successes and lessons learned and discussing how to make next year even better. It should not be about rubbing employees’ noses in their mistakes and providing negative feedback to justify a less-than-desirable raise.

Feedback often fails for two reasons:

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  • Too indirect. In an awkward attempt to spare an employee’s feelings, I have seen managers soften their improvement feedback so much that employees walk away thinking they’ve just been praised, completely oblivious to the problem their manager was trying to point out.
  • Too harsh. When people feel disrespected by feedback, their brains interpret it as an attack, which triggers the fight-or-flight response. This shuts down the problem-solving part of the receiver’s brain, and they tend to either aggressively challenge the feedback or appear contrite and then quietly plot their revenge.

Steps of providing helpful feedback

These five steps will substantially improve your ability to deliver tough messages directly and respectfully.

  1. Ask for feedback before giving it. Improvement feedback is sure to land badly if the people giving it never ask for feedback themselves. You must demonstrate that feedback is a gift, or everyone else will question your motives and associate it with punishment. Regularly requesting feedback gives you the moral authority to provide it.
  2. Begin with a question, not a statement. Managers are rated four times more effective at providing feedback if they listen to the other person’s views before providing theirs. Asking about the situation in question allows the other person to share important facts that you may not know about.
  3. Share observations, not conclusions. Most feedback methods encourage managers to prepare a monologue. This is the number one reason why feedback fails. Feedback is a dialogue. You do not have a monopoly on the truth. All you have is a perspective, so make sure to state it as such.
  4. Ask for clarification. Your perspective may not be 100% correct. After stating what you are observing, ask for their perspective to get all the facts on the table. If you give others the opportunity to share additional facts before you draw a conclusion, you might learn something that changes your perspective. You’ll also avoid jumping to conclusions and looking foolish.
  5. Focus on improving the future. Perhaps employees will provide some additional information about the situation that explains their actions, which may be the end of it. If, however, you still feel they could have done something else to produce better results, acknowledge the new information and then ask, “What else could be done to prevent this situation from happening in the future?” No matter how the conversation unfolds, the key is to come to an agreement about what one or both of you can do differently to produce better outcomes.

Follow a few of these pieces of advice to ensure the feedback you provide work for you instead of against you.


Michael Timms is a leadership development consultant, author, and speaker specializing in succession planning and creating accountable cultures. He is the author of How Leaders Can Inspire Accountability.

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