How To Give Employees Feedback To Create Positive Change

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According to Forbes, 32% of workers have to wait more than three months to receive feedback from their team leader, which can leave employees guessing as to how well they’re performing and if there’s anything they can do to level up.

This can be a problem, as most employees (particularly those with a growth mindset) believe their innate skills are just a starting point to build on and love learning, so they highly value getting feedback.

Giving feedback is a skill, and it can take a while to develop. So let’s take a look at what feedback is, how to give good feedback to encourage continuous self-improvement and how to get better at it.

What is feedback?

Feedback is helpful information or constructive criticism to guide an individual into becoming their best self. For example, “You handled a tricky conversation with that customer very well by being polite and calm, which meant you were able to maintain the relationship”.

Feedback isn’t about criticising or passing judgement, so “You can be overbearing which makes you difficult to work with” isn’t helpful feedback as it’s just pointing out the employee’s negative qualities. Instead you could say “It would be great if I could have more autonomy in projects. This would allow me to develop my skills and also free up some of your time”.

What are the different types of feedback?

There are two main types of feedback – reinforcing (positive) or redirecting (constructive).

Reinforcing feedback

Reinforcing feedback activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which leads to feelings of relaxation and motivates them to carry on with that behaviour.

It can include:

  • showing appreciation
  • acknowledging effort
  • recognising overall performance
  • encouraging skill improvement
  • saying thanks
  • reinforcing behaviours you want to keep

Redirecting feedback

Redirecting feedback highlights areas for improvement in a helpful way.

A few examples where you might use it are:

  • to help a team member refine processes
  • recommend improvements
  • improve project prioritisation
  • understand suitable ways to communicate
  • find the root cause of problems
  • talk through mistakes or misunderstandings

⏰Key point: It’s worth noting that giving feedback isn’t the same as a performance review. Feedback happens first, and a performance review should just be a confirmation of progress and commitments, so nothing said in the performance review should be a surprise.

What impact can feedback have on employees?

Feedback is beneficial for any workplace, and one of the essentials for encouraging positive change.

Giving useful feedback more regularly can:

  • Increase engagement: Letting employees know what they’re doing well and giving useful advice on how to improve can make them more engaged with their work and their colleagues. This can mean a healthier culture where workers feel empowered to address issues and share ideas.
  • Improve culture: Employees that are regularly given feedback and praise will feel more supported and have an easier time collaborating, which leads to happier and more skilled workers and a healthier culture.
  • Raise work standards: Feedback can motivate employees to demonstrate behaviour that meets or exceeds the organisations expected standard.
  • Build employee skills: Giving regular feedback will encourage employees to continually improve their skills and talents, which can increase efficiency and morale.
  • Save money: A productive and positive workplace means less inefficiencies, which can help the organisation save money.

⏰Key point: However, it’s important to focus your feedback on the most effective areas. Psychologist and growth mindset advocate Carol Dweck says that leaders should focus praise on employee’s labour, problem-solving and analysis to encourage them to strive for continuous improvement, instead of focussing on rewarding a person’s innate talents and end results.

6 ways leaders can give feedback to benefit their team

It can be tricky knowing how best to give feedback to your team, but the easiest way to work this out is to simply ask each individual how they prefer to receive feedback.

No matter how you go about giving feedback, here are a few key tips to getting it right: 

#1. You need to have a foundation of trust

To give feedback (particularly constructive comments) you need to have a good relationship. Even if your feedback is meant well, your suggestions won’t be gladly received if you don’t have a strong rapport with the colleague.

Stay away from words like “never”, “all,” and “always” as this can make the other person defensive and could damage your relationship.

#2. Be careful when balancing the good and bad

It’s a common tactic to sandwich negative feedback between positive statements. But this can often backfire – it can devalue the positive feedback leading to it being ignored which makes the negative even more impactful (and sometimes hurtful).

Don’t use positive feedback as a crutch for the negative – instead make sure you give positive feedback at other times, for its own sake, to encourage a good job. You don’t always need to provide constructive criticism.

#3. State facts, not assumptions

It’s important to remember that giving feedback should be more like a conversation of things you’ve observed, rather than you talking judgements at your team member. If they’re actively engaging in a discussion about their behaviour, the employee is more likely to act on the feedback. The easiest way to do this is to make an observation and ask them for their perspective.

For example, “Thanks for your report on the latest sales data – with a little tweaking it could be very impactful. I think it had a few too many statistics in it, and was a bit tricky to read. Perhaps you could introduce some infographics to make the data more digestible. What do you think?”.

This encourages the other person to voice their opinion and work together with you on the implications of your feedback.

#4. Be particular

There’s no point giving vague feedback – being told that there’s something wrong, but nothing specific can be unhelpful and frustrating. Positive feedback like “well done” can come across as insincere, so try and give meaningful feedback that demonstrates your appreciation.

#5. Don’t get personal

Separate your team members from their actions. For example, don’t say “you lack attention to detail”. Instead mention that you noticed a few typos on their recent mockup so it’s worth taking some extra time to double check it next time.

#6. Be consistent

Being regular with your feedback is a good way to set expectations and prepare your team members to receive it.

It’s also important to remember that feedback should also be given in every direction – up, down and sideways – within an organisation, instead of just between a leader and team member. We talk generally about feedback between a manager/supervisor and team member.

How can emotional intelligence (EI) be used to provide feedback?

You can use emotional intelligence (EI) to give better feedback. Having high EI means you’re more empathetic, have more developed social skills and can self-regulate – all of these can be a huge advantage when it comes to giving (or receiving) feedback.

When giving feedback using EI, it’s important to treat each person as an individual and approach them with their specific skills and personalities in mind.

For example, if your team member is frequently late, missing deadlines and is unfocused, instead of acting rashly and confronting them, consider the reasons why this might be the case.

  • Have they seemed more stressed recently?
  • Are they under too much pressure?
  • Do they not have the proper training?

Start by having an honest conversation to get to the root of the problem – mention you’ve noticed these changes in their behaviour and ask what’s going on. Practise active listening so you can show empathy, be present and be ready to help if needed. Opening up yourself can help your team feel more confident and show them that you’re on their side.

If you don’t employ emotional intelligence and are judgemental, harsh and playing the blame game, you’re not likely to improve the situation and, if anything, will probably worsen things.

Here are a few ways to give feedback that’s more emotionally intelligent:

  • Consider tone of voice and body language – stay calm and neutral
  • Provide feedback in person – you can pick up on non-verbal information and minimise misunderstandings
  • Pick the right time and place – make sure you have privacy, a good environment and relaxed mood
  • Pick one thing to feedback on – don’t overwhelm them and give them space to think
  • Have a helpful attitude – focus on the solutions, not the problems
  • Get to know your team – understanding someone’s personality can help you provide valuable feedback

How can you learn to become better at providing feedback?

If you want to improve how you give feedback, you can ask colleagues for feedback on your feedback. As long as you have a good relationship, your co-workers likely won’t mind helping you out.

Another way to boost your feedback-giving skills is through training. A good training course will include best practices, dos and don’ts as well as examples and a feedback template.

Some courses will even help employees get better at receiving and responding to feedback, including tips on how to ask questions to get clarity and how to provide suitable examples to demonstrate implementation.

It’s best to wait until everyone is calm and relaxed to share feedback, particularly if the topic is emotional. This means your colleague will be more receptive to what you’re saying and you’re less likely to say something you’ll regret once the heat of the moment has cooled.

Here are a few ways to improve the way you give feedback:

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Andrew Wallbridge
Andrew is TSW's Head of Leadership & Management. He’s coached and mentored leaders and the senior management teams at international brands.
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