giving feedback? don’t make these 10 mistakes

One of the most powerful tools that managers have for developing their staff members 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 toneshould 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.

{ 30 comments… read them below }

  1. Anon*

    Ooh, number 2! My boss is very frustrated with my performance on a project. It went, as projects do, with a few glitches but a pretty satisfactory completion. But toward the end he stopped speaking to me. If I spoke to him, he was short and cryptic. He finally called me in and asked if I didn’t think I should report to someone else. But he won’t say what the problem is. I imagine he thinks it’s obvious and he shouldn’t have to explain it, but, well, I need an explanation! I’ve tried guessing. I’ve specified several “lessons learned” so he’d know I was taking my errors seriously and aimed not to repeat them, but he’s belittled that so I know I didn’t guess right yet. My only hope of feedback is that I can schuss out his response in the post-project anonymous survey or it’ll land with a whop in my annual eval in four months. Why couldn’t he have said, “I don’t like how you’re doing this” about something months ago instead of fuming over how I kept doing the same darn thing again and again?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      That is really ridiculous of your boss. Can you say this to him: “I can tell that you’re unhappy with my performance on that project. In order to do better, I’d like feedback from you about what you were unhappy with so that I can do better in the future. I’d so appreciate it if we could talk through your assessment of that work.”

    2. Anonymous*

      What is this, middle school? Did he really give you the silent treatment?? I agree with AAM, definitely ask for the feedback politely and informally so his unprofessional bitterness doesn’t somehow hurt you even more in an “official” evaluation.

  2. bob*

    Wow, how the hell does your boss stop speaking to you?

    ” I’d like feedback from you about what you were unhappy with” and could you stop acting like an 8 year old??

    1. bob*

      And I forgot to add that you should absolutely get in front of and/or on top of this issue loooooooooong before your evaluation so you don’t get bushwacked.

  3. jmkenrick*

    I love number 9. Especially when I was new to the workforce, every correction felt to me like they were telling me I was awful. It’s taken some time to learn how to contextualize my feedback on my own, and even then, it’s hard to be sure that I’m getting the right idea.

  4. Kit M.*

    Another thing to consider in regards to #6: At the beginning of my current job I was ready and waiting to get constructive criticism for my work, but my boss never gave any. Now I’ve gone so long without it that I’m pretty sure any criticism would feel very momentous and unusual and I would react horribly.

  5. Anon2*

    #7 — You mean my attendance was within guidelines, never triggered any kind of disciplinary stage but you felt I was late/called in too often so you ding me for it on my review but never mention it once in the 365 days leading up to it? Oh I see, you set the attendance policy but you secretly find it too lenient, so instead of changing the policy you accuse your employees of “taking advantage” and bash them on their reviews.

    Yes, I’m a bit familiar with #7.

  6. Scott M*

    “#5 Not Being Specific” is my favorite. And you are right, it also applies to praise. It’s sort of demoralizing to have all your accomplishments lumped into “thanks for all you do” once a year at a performance review.

    1. Sarah*

      So true! My performance reviews are basically, “You’re doing great.” That’s it. No specifics. Nothing. I don’t think my boss even pays attention to what I do. It’s so de-motivating. It also prevents me from learning anything. I’m sure there are a few areas where I could improve.

    2. KayDay*

      Yes! And when you are new, specific positive feed back is really necessary so you know that what you did was correct!

    3. Anonymous*

      I had one set of management that would call us into a meeting every week or so to say “please follow X procedure we set up not long ago”.

      After the 4th(ish) time in a row I asked them about why they felt they had to keep emphasising this since we believed we were following the procedure in question. No Answer.

      After the next time I asked them where they were aware of us not following procedure as we felt we were and were unaware of failures in this area. No Answer.

      If they’d discussed instances with us where they felt results showed a lack of procedure being used or where expectations were slipping then I would have been happy to have a weekly ish meeting to discuss it. Instead all it did was waste half an hour of my time during which I could have been following those procedures and escalating customers cases according to them.

  7. Jeanne*

    I hate when they throw in some terrible criticism at the end of the year evaluation. It was never mentioned once all year but now it’s a huge problem. And you suspect it was included because without it they’d have to give you a good raise but with it they can say you don’t deserve the raise. I wish they would just be honest.

  8. Vicki*

    Add two:

    #11 – holding on to something that was discussed (and the employee thought was dealt with) months ago and then bringing it back up in the annual review as if it was a continuing problem.

    And my all time favorite, #12 – Making something up. (I had a manager who made things up. They never happened. When I called him on it he said “I need to put _something_ into the “needs improvement” section. And besides, nop one ever reads those things.”

    1. class factotum*

      Ah yes. The self-criticism section. I always felt like I had been arrested by The Party and had to write a confession when I got to the “needs improvement” part, only I didn’t know what my crime was.

      I finally started putting in things like, “I need to improve my technical skills on SAP and plan to take xyz training.”

  9. Kris*

    I recently had my annual review and recieved a meets standards instead of exceeds standards because my supervisor was mad at me for reporting a legal issue to our division director. Like I said it was a legal issue and I had tried to take care of it directly with the supervisor first but I got knocked down because I took care of an issue I was legally obligated to take care of.. yuck.. Don’t know where this would fall in these.

  10. Bonnie*

    #3 We have a manager that is so tactful that there are times when his bad feedback makes staff think they did a good job. I love the kindness he shows but staff can’t fix problems they aren’t told about. Turns out there is such a thing as a manager who is too nice.

  11. S*

    My boss gives zero feedback. He just sticks his head in the sand and avoids everyone. I’ve asked him for feedback, both good and bad. But he seems incapable of thinking through my work and coming up with anything. He avoids all issues big and small and spends most of his time joking with the one person on staff who seems to genuinely like him. It drives me crazy. I’m trying not to become a bitter person, but it’s hard to put your best foot forward day after day when you know that the only person who will ever notice your hard work and dedication is you. So I’ve become a semi-slacker, but that’s so against my personality, it makes me feel rotten.

      1. ChristineH*

        Completely agree. If nothing else, it will be very satisfying when you receive a compliment from a colleague or external contact if you were especially helpful or produced a well-written document (e.g. a report, newsletter article, etc).

  12. ChristineH*

    I’ve had #7 happen to me and it was really humiliating. Even worse, it was over something brought to my supervisor’s attention by my office mate 3-4 MONTHS earlier. No, the office mate didn’t approach me directly and no, I was never told about this relatively minor issue until the performance evaluation.

    1. Esra*

      The exact same thing happened to me at my last performance review. So irritating. The complain was vague at best, so I requested some direction on how I could improve and got nothing. I went back over emails to see where things might have gone wrong, absolutely nothing.

      I think my manager just wanted something bad to say in the review. Because the rest was all “You are great. Super great.” Although I’ve never had a manager look so miserable to say everything is going well.

  13. v*

    I feel like this should be retitled as “the 10 most common ways managers give feedback”

    Also, give feedback when the mistake, or success, is made.

    Manager: We need to have a conversation about your TPS reports
    V: Okay, what’s going on?
    Manager: Supervisor told me that you have been doing them wrong for 3 months.
    V: Oh, I thought I was doing them correctly; this is the first time I’ve heard that there is a problem
    Manager: Well it is very important that they get done correctly
    V: I understand
    Manager: So how can we ensure they get done correctly in the future?
    V: Well I guess someone needs to explain the correct way to do them because I thought I was doing them right all along.

  14. Joe*

    Alison, I’m curious what you think of the feedback sandwich? (For those not familiar with the term, it refers to the practice of always sandwiching critical feedback in between two pieces of positive feedback.) I personally hate it, and I think it detracts from the positive feedback (because then it can feel like the positive is only there because I have to have it to mitigate the negative). Do you like or dislike this practice?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Yeah, I agree — you end up losing the impact of either the good stuff or the bad stuff or both. If you give enough positive feedback the rest of the time, your employee should be able to deal with hearing something more corrective without having a meltdown.

      On the other hand, anything that gets managers to give feedback is a good thing since not enough of them do it.

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