The Art of Providing Meaningful Employee Feedback


By Yosie Saint-Cyr, LL.B.

Providing meaningful employee feedback is not just an art, but one of the most important functions of a supervisor or manager. Meaningful feedback helps employees improve their performance, decreases turnover, motivates self-improvement, builds trust and creates a paper trail useful in a dispute or potential lawsuit. However, many of us managers put off giving feedback to our employees even though we know that giving and getting straightforward feedback is essential to grow and develop and to build successful organizations. I think the reason why we hesitate or put it off is because we know that there are so many ways we can screw it up.

Common mistakes when providing feedback
Some of the common mistakes we make include the following:

  •  Providing feedback only when performance or behaviour is substantially below expectations
  •  Providing feedback only when something is wrong
  •  Providing unsubstantiated praise just to be polite or liked
  • Providing positive or negative feedback way after the event, incident or project has occurred
  • Providing feedback only through email messages, notes or over the telephone
  • Providing negative feedback in public
  • Providing negative feedback on performance without providing suggestions, tools, training or methods to improve
  • Providing no follow-up

In addition, not being accountable for your thoughts, feelings and reactions when providing feedback can create major problems. For instance, if you tell an employee that the negative comment you are making is coming straight from the boss, and not from you (when actually the sentiments expressed are yours), the employee might feel resentment toward the employer and also that he or she is unwanted, leading to performance and attitude problems. Another major problem is not scheduling regular performance reviews.


Elements to consider when providing feedback

As you will hear from human resources professionals and indirectly from the courts, giving and receiving honest, clear and constructive feedback is essential to build good relationships, communication and motivate employees to peak performance. It makes good business sense. In addition, feedback can help new employees immensely in realizing the potential they demonstrate when hired.


However, in my opinion, providing feedback requires a lot of skill (e.g., communication, and some would say also courage).


Experts point out that because performance reviews may be formal or informal, the supervisor or manager has choice and ultimate control over the process. To help the process, have feedback procedures in place (through annual reviews or at the end of a project or special task), and think about it as a means to help employees. Start with a simple process to allow you to become comfortable with giving and receiving feedback. Whatever the process chosen, the supervisor/manager and employee need to have two-way communication that leads to understanding and agreement. The agreement covers what has been accomplished since the last review, the corrective action if any that is needed and the employee’s longer-term aspirations and plans.


Note that feedback is not just about the form or standard you use. The standardized form is one of the tools that will confirm that a review has taken place. There is more. It includes the daily interactions between supervisors/managers and their employees and daily two-way communication to create meaning and generate success. It must be constructive.


Furthermore, employees will not take feedback or evaluations seriously from people who are poorly acquainted with what actually happens day-to-day in the workplace or with their job description.


Guidelines to consider when providing feedback

Leading experts and the courts say that feedback must be constructive (e.g., provide useful information, deal with specific issues, and be based on factual observations).


Constructive feedback can be positive or negative. Positive feedback provides information on an effort well done or good work performance. Negative feedback lets the employee know that his or her effort or work performance needs improvement. When providing negative feedback, don’t indicate or imply to the employee that his or her performance is terrible. Everything can be improved with the right coaching.


McGill and Beatty, in Action learning: A practitioner’s guide (London: Kogan Page, 1994, p. 159–163), provide useful suggestions about giving effective feedback:


1.    Clarity — Be clear about what you want to say

2.    Emphasize the positive — This isn’t simply taking part in the person’s dilemma

3.    Be specific — Avoid general comments and clarify pronouns such as “it”, “that”, etc.

4.    Focus on behaviour rather than the person

5.    Refer to behaviour that can be changed

6.    Be descriptive rather than evaluative

7.    Own the feedback — Use “I” statements

8.    Generalizations — Notice “all”, “never”, “always”, etc., and ask to get more specificity; often these words are arbitrary limits on behaviour

9.    Be very careful with advice — People rarely struggle with an issue because of the lack of some specific piece of information; often, the best help is helping the person reach a better understanding of their issue, how it developed and how they can identify actions to address the issue more effectively

View employee reviews and feedback as an opportunity for open and honest communication. Also, set an example at the top; it helps for the person being reviewed to know that the person doing the review has already had his or her own review.

Yosie Saint-Cyr, LL.B., is managing editor at–Canadian Payroll and Employment Law News.

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