How to Give Employee Feedback So It’s Useful and Welcome

April 5, 2018

Employee feedback

Research conducted by Jeanne Meister and Karie Willyerd, authors of The 2020 Workplace (HarperBusiness), revealed a contradiction concerning employee feedback:

  • Of eight managerial capabilities and strengths employees wanted most from their managers, “Will give me straight feedback” was ranked No. 1.
  • When HR professionals rated the managers in their organizations on the eight capabilities and strengths, the ability to give effective feedback was ranked last.

The fact is, most managers have a tremendous opportunity to improve in this important skill. For feedback to be useful, it must be understandable and actionable. It also needs to be welcoming. You achieve these goals by using words and a delivery style that communicate respect and a sincere desire to help your team members. Here are 11 questions to guide you in providing effective feedback.

Before the feedback conversation

The time, effort, and thought you put into preparation will make a huge difference in the success of the feedback conversation. When we take a “wing it” approach to feedback, we virtually ensure that we will say the wrong thing. This reduces the chances the feedback will be received well and potentially damages the relationship. Consider four questions:

  • Have you done your due diligence so that you are super clear about the facts, context, details, and backstory related to the feedback?
  • If you’re upset, have you done the work needed to get into a constructive emotional and mental state before having the conversation?
  • Are you going into the conversation with a desire for a dialogue, not a monologue? Are you genuinely curious about the employee’s perspective?
  • Are you willing to discover that your perception is not totally accurate, or even wrong?

During the feedback conversation

Starting out the conversation on the right foot has a disproportionate effect on how well it will go. It’s much easier to keep a conversation positive if it starts off well than it is to resurrect a conversation that has started off in a negative way. This is also why doing your “homework” before you have the feedback conversation is so important. Ask these questions:

  • Regarding your word choice and tone of voice, do you use the least amount of intensity and force to get the point across?
  • Are you using descriptive, sensory-based language for both what you’re not OK with and what you want instead—that is, your desired outcome?
  • Do you use language and a tone of voice that communicate “We’re two adults here” versus “I’m the teacher scolding the student”?
  • Do you ask questions to better understand where employees are coming from, to help them explore the reasons for their actions, and to guide them in identifying how they can do something differently the next time?
  • Do you check in to get their thoughts about what you just said, versus going on and on and on…?
  • Do you invite people to share their perspective, using questions such as “So that’s what I’m seeing; do you see it differently?”
  • Do you paraphrase employees’ statements at times to acknowledge you understand what they’re saying, especially if they seem to be getting upset or intense about trying to get you to understand their perspective?

Feedback done well is a true win/win. Employees win because they are hungry for feedback on their performance and how they can improve. Managers win because giving feedback effectively not only improves performance but also builds morale. It is well worth the effort to improve at this critical skill.

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About The Author

David Lee is the founder and principal of HumanNature@Work and the creator of Stories That Change. He’s an internationally recognized authority on organizational and managerial practices that optimize employee performance, morale, and engagement. He is also the author of Powerful Storytelling Techniques (ATD Press) and nearly 100 articles and book chapters, including one on using storytelling in onboarding in the third edition of The Talent Management Handbook (McGraw-Hill, 2017). You can contact him at, or follow him on Twitter at @HumanNatureWork.

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    […] to hide the message. I think often when managers soften language, when they’re giving serious feedback, they do it because it feels unkind to be very direct and concrete. But if the result is that the […]

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