Giving Feedback? Don’t Make These 10 Mistakes

One of the most powerful tools managers have for developing their staff is providing direct feedback – both positive and corrective. In fact, simply articulating areas in which you’d like to see a staff member improve or develop can go a surprisingly long way.

But all too often managers neglect to give regular feedback, or deliver it in a way that diminishes its power. Don’t fall into this trap!  Pay attention to these 10 cardinal rules of giving feedback, and resolve to avoid their snare.

1. Giving more critical feedback than positive feedback. Assuming you’re dealing with a good employee, the vast majority of feedback you give should be positive. This isn’t to say that you should shy away from corrective feedback; it’s to say that you should be giving a ton of positive feedback too. Positive feedback tells employees that their efforts are appreciated and increases the chances you’ll see more of the same behavior. In addition, positive feedback is a form of creating accountability. If your staff member consistently does a good job but never hears from you about it, she may wonder why no one has noticed.

2. Avoiding the conversation until you’re frustrated. If you put off talking to an employee about a problem until you’re ready to snap over it, you’re likely to come across as frustrated and even make it personal. Talk to the person as soon as you realize there’s a problem; don’t put it off. Giving regular feedback is part of the job as a manager; avoiding it would be as negligent as a receptionist who ignores the phone when it rings.

3. Getting so caught up in being tactful that your message gets lost. You may feel kinder or more polite sugarcoating a difficult conversation, but it’s not at all kind to let someone miss an important message. When a manager sugarcoats to the point that her message is missed, or presents requirements as mere suggestions, staffers end up confused about expectations, and the manager ends up frustrated that her “suggestions” weren’t acted upon. Your tone should be kind, but your words need to be direct. And on the flip side…

4. Not being kind. While some bad managers shy away from giving feedback altogether, another type goes in the other direction – they make their feedback personal, and yell at or demean the employee. Good managers may sound concerned about problems, but they rarely sound angry or hostile.

5. Not being specific. When you’re giving feedback, don’t speak in generalities; give specific examples. For instance, don’t just say, “You’re slow in getting your assignments done”; instead say, “You turned the quarterly report in late during two of the four reporting periods. This is true of praise, too; telling a staff member, “I loved the way you organized that spreadsheet; the categories made sense and you made sure it was easy to read on the screen” is very clear about was done well and almost guarantees you’ll be seeing more well-organized spreadsheets in the future.

6. Making feedback a special event. You should provide feedback on a constant, ongoing basis, in order to reinforce behavior you want to see more of, prevent bad habits from becoming ingrained, and foster an atmosphere of open communication. Providing feedback regularly can also allow you to address potential problems while they’re still small, rather than telling a staffer that something she has been doing for months is wrong.

7. Waiting for a formal performance evaluation. Don’t make the mistakes of treating performance evaluations as a substitute for regular, ongoing feedback throughout the year. In fact, if anything in an evaluation is a surprise to the employee, it’s a sign that the manager hasn’t been doing her job.

8. Not explaining consequences. Good managers are clear about potential consequences if problems aren’t fixed, explaining that it could impact the person’s next raise, jeopardize their job, or whatever the case may be. I’ve seen managers give lots of feedback to a struggling staff member but never explicitly say that the person’s job in jeopardy–so, the staffer ends up shocked when she is ultimately fired. Not only is this unfair to the staffer, who deserves to know the severity of the concerns, but it can create significant anxiety among other employees, who may begin to fear they’re on the verge of being fired every time they receive critical feedback.

9. Not putting criticism in context. If the vast majority of someone’s work is great but you need to address a problem with a small piece of it, make sure the person knows that overall they’re doing well. Too often, managers give lukewarm feedback to employees who they would be devastated to lose, and are inappropriately positive with employees whose performance is lackluster.

10. Not giving feedback at all. Some managers don’t give critical feedback at all. They either let low performers remain on their staff forever, or they fire them out of the blue one day–having given the employees no sense of what was coming.

Alison Green

Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog where she dispenses advice on career, job search, and management issues. She's also the co-author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Manager's Guide to Getting Results and former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, hiring, firing, and employee development.

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