The Feedback Your Employees Really Want

Only Angela on The Office enjoyed performance review day: "I really enjoy being judged. I believe I hold up very well to even severe scrutiny." For the rest of us—both the giver and the receiver—the employee evaluation process is awkward at best. The trick to making the situation more beneficial and less painful for all involved is to focus on giving the types of feedback employees really want: feedback that's frequent, constructive, and actionable, as well as delivered in an appropriate manner.

feedback your employees really want

Why Frequent Feedback Wins The Day

One of the main reasons everyone dreads performance reviews is the element of surprise. Have you been storing up negative feedback all year long, waiting to spring it on your employees at their most vulnerable? It’s far better to give—and receive—feedback year-round, when an employee can still change course.

A manager's goal come annual review time should be no surprises. Providing ongoing feedback—both positive and negative—deflates emotion during formal performance reviews. The conversation becomes a true reflection on the past year, not a time to deliver bad news, which in turn leaves more time to look forward and set goals.

Another way to look at frequent feedback is to consider it "agile." Think about agile software development: programmers complete a short sprint, then provide the product to the client for testing. Because the programmers are receiving reactions early and often instead of waiting until the end to gather client feedback, it's easier—and cheaper—to address errors and make tweaks. Ongoing evaluation has the same effect in an employee-manager relationship. It's easier (and cheaper) to help an employee improve along the way rather than waiting until a situation is beyond repair.

Employees Crave Constructive Criticism

Everyone enjoys compliments, but it might surprise you to learn most employees prefer receiving negative feedback over positive. One study by leadership consulting firm Zenger/Folkman found that 57 percent of employees wanted negative feedback instead of positive. According to the same poll, 92 percent also agreed with the statement "Negative feedback, if delivered appropriately, is effective at improving performance."

The problem is, many managers avoid giving negative feedback because it's uncomfortable. That's why it's important to clarify what negative feedback isn't. It's not a reprimand, general criticism, or a personal putdown. It's specific feedback that moves both your employee and your company toward mutual goals.

Providing constructive criticism in the moment might feel awkward at first, but once you develop that managerial muscle, you'll realize it helps head off the most uncomfortable conversation of all—firing someone.

Actionable Always Wins The Day

You've heard it time and again: A goal without a deadline is just a dream. Similarly, employee feedback that isn't S.M.A.R.T. (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Timely) is just ... a bunch of words. Don't just tell employees that they need to improve; tell them how they can improve.

Providing "SMART" feedback might initially feel more time-consuming, but in the long run, it will save you time. As you prepare to provide feedback, consider the following:

  • Are you providing specific information about how the employee can improve? An employee who is feeling lost might feel even more frustrated if left to his or her own devices to determine the path forward.
  • Have you defined how improvement will be measured?
  • Is the sought-after change attainable, or does the employee lack necessary skills or resources?
  • Is the feedback relevant to your company's goals?
  • Are you providing the feedback in a timely enough manner for the employee to act on it? (Again, waiting until the annual performance review to share feedback about a situation six months ago will only result in hard feelings and missed opportunities.)

Time and Place Matters

Employees also want you to give as much thought to the delivery of feedback as you do to the message itself. In general, it's best to deliver negative feedback in a private setting. Employee performance is always a confidential matter. Don't correct someone in front of the entire department.

It's equally important to give thought to the delivery of compliments. For instance, some employees thrive on positive public feedback; others might feel embarrassed by it and prefer to hear your appreciation one-on-one. This is why learning your team members' styles through a personality tool such as Myers-Briggs, True Colors, or DiSC can be so valuable. Some employees find public recognition motivating; others are uncomfortable with the spotlight, no matter how positive.

Providing employee feedback is tough, but it's the No. 1 responsibility you have as a manager. Give yourself some grace, and remember you have to be better at it than Michael Scott.

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