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“George, can you step into my office for a minute?”: Delivering Effective Feedback

Can we all agree on these two statements? 1) People with good information make good decisions. 2) We are all flawed — each and every one of us can improve our effectiveness technically and as leaders.

Here's the catch: in order to improve, we need to receive candid and timely feedback about our performance. And, to the point of this enews, we need to give candid and timely feedback to the people who work for us.

So, why don’t we do it? What’s YOUR excuse? Why don’t YOU give your people the constructive (and sometimes difficult) effective feedback they need to get better at their jobs? I don’t mean to single YOU out; I run into this issue with almost all my clients! Without singling anyone out, this is an issue I encounter consistently. guiltyI’m even guilty. A number of years ago, a TWC team member I hired to help me with a long and complicated project confronted me with this feedback: “Karen, I’m worried that if you ever had negative feedback to give me, I would just never hear from you again.” And he was correct! When members of my team didn’t perform to expectations, my tendency was just not to use them on the next project – or maybe ever again. Doug’s feedback was a turning point for me as a leader. I learned that the folks who work with me want to know what they can do to improve their results. As a result, I’m constantly working to provide effective feedback to them.

I have my own theories about what keeps people from giving robust feedback, but was curious to see what other professionals had to say. I posted the following question to the online business community of LinkedIn:

Why do you think it is so hard for managers and leaders
to give their people the constructive (and sometimes difficult) feedback they need to get better at their jobs?

I heard an earful! My thanks to all who responded so eloquently. The majority of comments fell into one of the following six excuses (oops, I meant categories):

  • We don’t know how.
  • We wait too long.
  • We don’t want to be hurtful.
  • We lose focus on why feedback is important.
  • We are fearful.
  • We are not measured on it.

Here’s a slightly edited sample of the responses, categorized by excuse, along with ideas for overcoming them.

EXCUSE 1: We don’t know how.
“Managers do not have the skills and conversation structure for giving feedback.” – Tony Latimer, master executive coach, co-founder Horseplay Asia, training director at Asia Coach Institute, president ICF Singapore

Keep your feedback fact-based. “In order to be truly constructive, especially when it’s tough, the feedback must be as fact-based and as non-judgmental as possible. Numbers work best, and if you haven’t set measurable goals and tracked them effectively, you’re going to have a hard time giving fact-based numerical feedback.” – Tom O’Dea, owner, WSI Internet Marketing

Feedback is not about forms. A Fast Company article puts it this way: “Anyone who equates delivering feedback with filling out forms has lost the battle for smart appraisal before it’s begun.” Consultant Kelly Allen is quoted in the article saying: “If you use forms as the basis for meetings about performance you change only one thing – what might have been a natural, helpful conversation into an awkward, anxious inspection.”

Develop your skills as a coach. Today's leaders need strong coaching skills if they are to aphoto by cateface3, the necessary business results and support their employees' growth into tomorrow's leaders. Consider taking a coaching workshop so that you will know how to give really good feedback to your employees.

EXCUSE 2: We wait too long.
“Some of the hesitation to give timely feedback can be attributed to the very nature of an “annual performance evaluation” exercise which encourages you to save up these constructive tidbits to make good use of the time set aside at the end of the year. Having been a part of very well-led and very poorly-led teams, an environment that fosters timely and constructive feedback is certainly a common trait among the good ones.” – T.J. Graven, VP, Director of Business Solutions and Technology at Brown-Forman Corporation

Don’t delay. Practice being intentional about providing feedback immediately or nearly immediately. Start with one direct report, one instance, and try to formulate and deliver the feedback within 24 hours. A coaching client I am working with now has found that, so far, the feedback she agonized over delivering is, in fact well-received. She has learned that folks do want to know how they can get better results.

“A working relationship is like any kind of personal relationship. Open, timely and honest communication makes all the difference in the world.” – Jeff Unger, owner, Jeff Unger and Associates, Inc. and management consulting consultant

Okay, delay sometimes. If you are providing feedback around an emotionally charged event, wait a day or two. “Sometimes you’re so emotional that it makes sense to wait,” advises Rick Maurer, author of Feedback Toolkit. “Let your gut be your guide.” And find an appropriate time and place. Don’t give important feedback,” advises Maurer, in the hallway.”

Create just-in-time feedback. The Fast Company article mentioned above challenges managers to build feedback into routine meetings and memos. The article encourages managers to learn to deliver feedback through email, voice mail, and short notes. “If we really want a just-in-time workforce,” argues business author Bruce Tulgan, “we have to create just-in-time feedback.”

EXCUSE 3: We don’t want to be hurtful. Or, put another way: it is nice to be nice.
“I believe it [reluctance to give feedback] primarily may be due to our society’s current emphasis on being “positive” and not doing anything to harm others’ self esteem.” – Philip Eschels, member at Greenebaum Doll & MacDonald

This is an excuse that resonates with me personally. What if the feedback provided is injurious? What if the receiver is angry? Anecdotally, this is the most frequently voiced concern in coaching sessions with clients.

Being direct isn’t being mean. In fact, it is one of the kindest things you can do for your employees. State the positive outcome you want to see, being as descriptive as possible. Don’t forget to communicate that you are “on their side.” And then, tell that person the news—your feedback in a direct AND caring fashion.

Make feedback more acceptable. A recent Harvard Business Review article, entitled “A Better Way to Deliver Bad News” notes that people tend to be more willing to accept feedback when they have the feeling that:

  • The person offering the feedback is reliable and has good intentions toward them.
  • The feedback development process is fair – that is, the person giving the feedback collects all relevant information; allows the subordinate to clarify and explain matters; considers the subordinate’s opinions; and applies consistent standards when delivering criticism.
  • The feedback communication process is fair – that is, the person offering feedback pays careful attention to the subordinate’s ideas; shows respect for the subordinate; and supports the subordinate despite their disagreements.

Partner for improvement. “Genuinely work with your employees to see how you might help them improve, either through your own actions, or training, or other resources in the organization.” – Heather Stagl, Owner and Leadership Coach at Enclaria Leadership

EXCUSE 4: We lose focus on why feedback is important.
“I believe that the person delivering the feedback has to ground themselves on why the feedback needs to be given: 1) to help the individual grow and 2) to be a good steward of the organization. When I have to deliver tough feedback, it helps me tremendously to remind myself that I am not doing the individual a favor if I withhold important, though difficult, feedback. I would also not be serving my employer properly if I don’t seek to improve the performance of the organization’s resources.” – Raul Pino, technology and strategy executive at CARE

It is your job to give feedback. Giving feedback to your employees is essential to grow and develop and to build successful organizations. With coaching clients, we frequently create a “coaching grid” that lists each direct report and one or two specific development needs for each person. Keeping the grid foremost in their daily work then greatly increases leaders’ likelihood of taking advantage of their daily interactions with employees to focus on their improvement and deliver needed performance feedback.

EXCUSE 5: We are fearful.
“For some, it may be fear of potential conflict, for others maybe fear of not being liked or fear of damaging a relationship that they value.” – Bo Carrington, senior consultant at The Hayes Group International

One reason I believe managers are reluctant to give hard, but constructive feedback, is fear – fear of how the feedback will be received by the employee (i.e., they might be mad, cry, etc.) and fear of how they, the manager, will be perceived. This fear often stems from a lack of practice in effective coaching.” – Lynette Green, interactive project manager at Brown-Forman Corporation

“Even managers and leaders want to be liked – at least most do. And difficult feedback doesn’t appear to go hand-in-hand with being liked. Ironically, well prepared and delivered feedback could be the most valuable contribution a manager can make to an employee’s development.” – Tom O’Dea

Make feedback an expected and routine part of your supervisory style. The more often you give feedback, the easier it becomes to do – and the easier it is for an employee to respond to. Remember employees are starving for feedback and recognition. They want to be challenged and they want to know how they are doing. If you regularly compliment accomplishments and identify problem areas with the intent to teach, rather than punish, feedback will become an expected and welcomed part of your style.

EXCUSE 6: We are not measured on it.
“I have worked within organizations where leaders were hesitant to give critical feedback because their performance was graded partially (but significantly) on how well their employees ‘liked’ them.” – Bo Carrington

“I believe the discussions fail to take place when a manager is not being appropriately measured and held accountable by his/her own manager. – David Metzger, sourcing at GE Consumer & Industrial

Measure your managers for how well they develop their employees. Along with metrics around hard business deliverables, managers should also be measured on soft deliverables: team morale, team member development and promotion, succession planning, conflict resolution. We focus on what we’re being measured on.” – David Metzger

So, think about it. What is your excuse? What is your feedback phobia? And what are you going to do about it? Please share your thoughts/action plans with us.


Many thanks to my connections on LinkedIn who provided important and helpful comments for this newsletter!

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