Leadership Skills: Providing Purposeful, Actionable Employee Feedback

A huge function of leadership in the workplace is providing employee feedback, yet for many, it continues to feel less like a tool to encourage excellency and more like a minefield to navigate as infrequently as possible. 

If you fall in the latter category, you would likely cite fear of a negative response or lack of knowledge about employee performance as the reason behind your hesitancy.

One of the best ways to grow in your ability to provide meaningful feedback is to work on that skill with a leadership coach. Not only will they be able to provide you with useful resources, but they can also engage you in role-playing activities that let you put your new knowledge into practice in a safe, low-stakes environment.

Don’t Be Afraid of “Negative” Employee Feedback

It’s much easier to sit across the table during a performance review from someone who brings their A-game every day than it is with someone who hasn’t been meeting the mark, but as a leader, part of your role is helping your employees grow. While positive feedback makes us feel valued, appreciated, and engaged in our job, negative feedback– if delivered correctly– is a catalyst for change. 

In a 2014 study conducted by Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman, employees were emphatic about the value of constructive criticism:

“When asked what was most helpful in their career, fully 72% said they thought their performance would improve if their managers would provide corrective feedback.”

When corrective feedback goes wrong, it’s typically because of the way we say it and not necessarily because of what’s being said. Too often, leaders approach negative feedback as a disciplinary issue that has to be addressed and are on the defensive from the start, unwilling to have a conversation or hear from the receiver’s perspective. 

There’s no need to rebuke or reprimand your employee. Instead, maintain an objective and even tone, state the feedback, provide an example, and perhaps most importantly, offer solutions. That last step is transformative, as it gives your employee an actionable step that they can take to make the situation better, which is something they are likely more than happy to do.

Say What You Mean, Mean What You Say

If you want to create an effective team, there’s no room for sugarcoating or bush beating. Instead, you should be the person that they turn to when they need an unbiased perspective on their work and performance. 

If you handle feedback by subverting the message in an effort to soften the blow, you are opening the door to misinterpretation and further poor performance. At that point, the onus of responsibility shifts to you because you are reinforcing the behavior by failing to address it in a meaningful and authentic way. 

The result of these kinds of conversations is often an escalated response from both parties: The feedback giver is frustrated that the behavior has continued and that the receiver didn’t “read between the lines” to fix the problem, while the recipient feels confused as to why the situation is even being addressed again if there wasn’t a problem to begin with. 

Be Prepared and Specific 

Before you sit down with an employee, you need to be prepared to back up what you say with specific examples for positive and negative feedback alike. 

If you can’t provide proof of the critiques, there’s a lot of room to argue that you didn’t have the full story, are “just being mean,” or even accuse you of lying. This, of course, can quickly turn a performance review into a volatile situation. 

When you are able to show examples, though, you are proving that you pay attention to what is happening with your team and that the employee feedback you are providing is based in reality. It also shows that you care enough about the success of the employee to monitor their progress.

Make It a Conversation, Not a Monologue

Ownership and change go hand-in-hand. If you approach feedback as a monologue, you are removing any sense of ownership your team member has over their behavior because the only person’s opinion that matters is yours. Their perspective, reasoning, and steps they’ve taken to improve aren’t taken into account, leaving a “half-told” story about their performance. 

Instead, open the door for both parties to be active and engaged in feedback conversations. Welcome your employee to give their perspective on a particular behavior, then give your own. Ask what they think the next step should be, then offer to provide scaffolds to help them reach their goal. 

As they make progress, recognize it and keep the conversation going. Especially in a large company, it’s easy to feel like just another cog in a grander machine, but regular feedback helps alleviate that sense of isolation and create more engaged employees. 

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