are you giving your employees enough feedback?

If you’re a manager, I can tell you with almost total certainty that you don’t give your team members enough feedback. I say this because the vast majority of managers don’t, so you’re not alone.

The specifics of how this plays out vary from manager to manager, but most managers fall in one of these three categories:

  • Managers who excel at giving positive feedback but don’t talk nearly as much as they should about what staff members could be doing their jobs better. Managers in this category are guilty of sitting on critical feedback way too long, if they ever give it at all. Usually it’s because giving critical feedback can be hard – it feels like a tough conversation to initiate, and they’re often worried about just how to present it and what the person’s reaction will be. While this usually stems from a place of good intentions – wanting to be kind and not wanting to hurt anyone’s feelings – it results in teams and employees who aren’t performing at the level they could be. And at its worst, it can result in employees being blindsided by negative performance evaluations, low raises, lack of advancement, or even being let go.
  • Managers who are very comfortable giving critical feedback but don’t regularly give praise as well. This can be a particularly toxic combination, because staff members feel constantly criticized without having positive feedback to balance it out. If all you hear from your boss is about things she’d like you to do differently, it’s easy to conclude that you’re doing a poor job – which often surprises this type of manager, who frequently think that people know they’re doing well without being told. Reality check: People need and want to be told.
  • Managers who don’t give much feedback of either sort, positive or negative. These managers are abdicating one of their basic responsibilities as managers, which is to evaluate and provide input to staff members are what’s going well, what could be going better, and how they can develop professionally. As a result, their teams generally just muddle through without much direction. Ironically, this type of manager often has a number of complaints about their staff (no surprise, since the staff exists in a guidance-free zone), but doesn’t funnel them into actionable feedback.

Here are some questions to help you spot whether you fit the profile of one of these types:

  • When was the last time each person on your staff heard specific praise for you about something they had done well?
  • When was the last time you talked to each person on your staff about something they could do better?
  • When you’re unhappy about an element of a staff member’s performance, how long does it take you to talk to them about it? By the time you have the conversation, have you let yourself grow frustrated?
  • Is there anything that you think staff members do particularly well that haven’t told them about?
    Do you have any concerns about staff members’ performance that you haven’t discussed with them?

Feeling guilty yet? Resolve to push yourself to give more feedback to your team this month and see how it goes.

I originally published this at Intuit QuickBase’s blog.

{ 44 comments… read them below }

  1. Carrie in Scotland*

    Sorry Alison, I think your title’s off a little bit – ‘are you give’, rather than ‘are you giving’…

      1. Sarahnova*

        To read makes our speaking English good!

        Also, I couldn’t agree more, generally. I’ve most often dealt with managers in category #1 or category #3 (which I suppose is my good luck; #2 is more abrasive to deal with, although all 3 can be equally as unhelpful to performance and/or your development). My organisation has a culture of giving feedback to people’s managers, not to them directly, which I’ve politely pointed out, and I try to request feedback, both positive and constructive, on specific projects as much as I can. It’s not always comfortable to ask OR hear, but I think building the kind of relationship where I feel comfortable accepting, and someone else feels comfortable giving, both kinds of feedback is incredibly valuable.

        I also like to point out to people who “don’t want to make people feel uncomfortable” by negative feedback that they’re actually protecting themselves, not the employee – they’re privileging their own desire to avoid feeling mild discomfort above the negative consequences that are suffered by someone who’s not hearing something they would benefit from hearing.

        1. ClaireS*

          You’re last point is great. When I’m having a hard time deciding if an email is ok or if i should call (for sensitive matters) I try to ask myself: am I emailing because it’s the best way to communicate this or am I emailing because I’m afraid of calling. Asking the question usually forces me to make the call or go to the person face-to-face.

          1. Sarahnova*

            Yeah, what people usually mean IMO when they say “I don’t want to make X feel uncomfortable” is “I don’t want to feel uncomfortable”. (I include myself in that judgement.)

            Nothing is actually more uncomfortable than an environment where people talk about what you’re doing wrong – just not to your face – or one where they never talk about things, just silently resent you for it. Conversely, nothing makes me more comfortable than an environment where I know if I stuff up, I’ll hear about it, quickly and clearly. I actually dig being around really blunt people for this reason.

            1. Clever Name*

              Exactly. I’m a blunt person (sometimes to my detriment, I acknowledge), and I prefer it when others are blunt and direct with me. I’ve also worked at places where people would just talk about something someone was doing wrong behind their back, and I finally spoke up and said, “I really hope if I’m doing a crappy job at something that someone tells me I’m doing a crappy job rather than making fun of me for it behind my back.” To their credit, one of my project managers actually did approach me a few weeks later to tell me about something they wanted done differently. I thanked them and did it how they directed the next time I did it. Easy peasy.

  2. Worker Bee (Germany)*

    Do you all know the wish: “I wish I could just copy and paste this link in an email to my manager”.. sigh

  3. Yup Yup*

    #2 That’s my manager! Very quick to criticize (and very blunt, with no tact) but the positive feedback is lacking. Truthfully I get quite nervous around my manager because I’m tired of hearing what I do wrong but would love to know a little more about what I do write. Guess these managers believe in no news is good news?

    1. LQ*

      I work with someone who is very much like this. She feels like if you do your job you shouldn’t be praised for doing your job. But if you mess something up she gets very frustrated. She wants no praise so she doesn’t get that other people want it.

      In projects where I’ve worked with her I make sure to check in with her after someone does something we really want them to be doing and make her write a praisey email.

      But yeah some people don’t want it so they don’t understand that other people don’t want it.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        “Praise is a sign of weakness. So is saying ‘thank you’. Never let the subordinates know you are weak.”

        Yeah. Actual words from an actual person.

    2. Rebecca*

      You mean like “you people don’t know anything about anything, ever!”, that type of statement? This was in response to questions about a new procedure she was attempting to convey to us. It was new. We had questions. Of course we didn’t know (see the new part). In these cases, no feedback is better.

  4. Barbara in Swampeast*

    My second job in high school, I worked in a lighting store. I worked my way up from cleaning/stocking to cleaning/stocking/sales! I also got several raises (hey $.10 was a lot back then). Then one day the store owner asked what was wrong with me. He said he had given me raises hoping I would work harder and stop making mistakes!!!!! Then went down a list of “mistakes” from the last six months. There was nothing I could about any of those mistakes so long after the fact. And to this day, one of the mistakes was the mistake of the store manager, because if I charged someone wholesale instead of retail, it was because she left the wholesale price sheet at the counter. Spent the next month worrying about everything little mistake and wondering if I would get fired. Made myself sick, literally, and quit.

    1. Sarahnova*

      …Wow. That is like the worst management strategy ever, and The Great Astoundo probably couldn’t have read this manager’s mind properly.

      That kind of environment is always unhealthy, and can really drive you nuts. I think the only thing you can do if you have this kind of manager is get out. (Sure, some managers are just conflict-avoidant or don’t realise how necessary feedback is and can be coaxed, but I think once your manager is in “what is wrong with you for not magically intuiting your mistakes despite my actions being in complete conflict with my apparent expectations”, you’re squarely in crazypants-run-away territory.)

    2. Not So NewReader*

      How to drive your employees to their next job.

      What an incredibly short-sided person with marginal management skills. Some people can run a business but they cannot manage people.

      I get disgusted with these stories because what the heck is the message to our young people? yikes.

      1. Worker Bee (Germany)*

        “How to drive your employee to their next job” sound like a great title for a Blockbuster… I have a comedy in mind just like “How to loose a guy in 10 Days”… Alison are you up for writing a screen play :) I would love this.

  5. Carrie in Scotland*

    As for me, well, I have a line manager but I don’t really work with her, as she already has someone supporting her and I support a different person/help out with different depts. that they have nothing much to do with. So there isn’t really much overlap. At my one month review, she’d talked to the people that I have helped/supported and gave me feedback that way, as well as gently pointing out I should go on some IT training courses…

  6. Claire*

    I’ve been lucky so far to have managers who have been very free with positive feedback (my current manager is…very effusive, which is a little embarrassing but mostly flattering!). It really does make a huge difference in my quality of life at work.

  7. Jillociraptor*

    Those questions were so helpful! As a manager I tend to focus more on positive feedback, and while I don’t think it’s a dire situation I can always improve on giving critical feedback. I have been really lucky to have direct reports who are extremely receptive to feedback.

    One challenge I’ve encountered with my own manager, which isn’t quite included here, is not getting specific positive feedback. She gives me general praise, of the “Nice job!” variety, but rarely, “This project was really strong because…” It feels like fishing for compliments to ask for more details when something is going well, but it’s hard to know if my work is satisfactory but could be better, or legitimately good!

    1. Sarahnova*

      Jillociraptor (…love it), you could put it like this:

      “Thanks for saying that. I’d really like to make sure I do even better in future – could you say a bit more about what specifically worked well?” Following up by asking, “Anything I could do better/differently?”

      I do this, and it is sometimes mildly awkward or surprising for the person being asked, but in my experience people who generally have positive intent will make a genuine effort to give you the feedback.

      Other tools, if you only get positive/negative feedback from someone and want the flip side: “Thanks for the feedback; that’s really helpful. Anything you’d add on the positive/developmental side?”

    2. Rat Racer*

      I think it’s hard to give constructive criticism for two reasons: the first is for the obvious reason that it’s uncomfortable – and I agree that it’s much more uncomfortable for me as a manager to give constructive criticism than to be on the receiving end. But the second is that I often find it hard to roll up a series of specific edits into general principles that my direct report (I only have 1) can use in the future. It’s easy enough to go through a deliverable and make a ton of copy edits. It’s harder to articulate why someone’s sentence structure is clumsy (see? “clumsy” is not really specific or actionable), why someone’s presentation graphics are wanting, why the outline flow doesn’t work.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        If I were facing this, I would find more than one problem running here.

        1) The problem of having to say something negative to anyone.

        2) Find the words that accurately describe the problem or what is missing.

        3) Setting rules of thumb, that the employee can refer back to on her own.

        For me, if I can get through the second problem, that is find the words to describe what needs to happen vs what is happening, then I am half way there.
        Next I try to develop a rule of thumb that might be useful. That is not always possible.
        After all this, I am ready to talk to the person. For that I have to tell myself the most UNfair thing I can do is say nothing.

        It’s a long road. I have found that it does get easier in some spots. Other spots, not so much.

  8. Maddy*

    I think I fall squarely in the #3 category as a manager — but hey, admitting you have a problem is the first step, right? I think my problems as a manager stem from several things, the biggest two are the fact that I’m given zero direction from my own manager about what I or my team should be doing/prioritizing and I get REALLY defensive reactions from staff whenever I’ve tried to give critical feedback before, so now I default to no feedback just to keep the peace.

    I know there’s no changing the first problem (trust me, I’ve tried), but as for the second, what can I do as a manager to make my staff more receptive to critical feedback without softening the message so much that the point gets lost? That balance is something I really struggle with.

    1. LQ*

      How are you giving that feedback?

      “I want to talk to you about this specific thing and here is the specific way I want you to do it next time.”

      General things are super frustrating. “Be nicer,” is the worst feedback I ever got. (It was no doubt accurate…) I need to you smile more at people when you first meet them to make a positive impression since you’re telling them such scary things. Way more helpful.

      1. Maddy*

        I typically try to start by asking questions to make sure there isn’t some factor I don’t know about. Usually it’s “Why did you chose to do X rather than Y?” Sometimes there’s a reasonable explanation and sometimes there isn’t. When there isn’t, they tend to get worked up defending their choice, before I’ve even had a chance to explain why it wasn’t the right one. I try to reassure them that they aren’t in trouble and it’s not a huge deal (which most of the time is the case), but that doesn’t seem to help.

        1. Not So NewReader*

          In this example here that question format is well used as an opening to a verbal assualt. I have seen too many nasty bosses use it. They could be channeling an old job with that nasty boss.

          Try opening with a new sentence. “I need to make sure that there isn’t some factor I don’t know about here, so I have to ask: Why did you do X in this instance?”

          How long have you been with them? What was their former boss like?

    2. Not So NewReader*

      It depends on the individuals. You might be able to say something like, “Relax, this is not a court marshal. It’s just some advice.”

      Make sure that you are not speaking where others can over hear.

      Make sure you give compliments/praise that others CAN over hear.

      When a person corrects a long-running or difficult problem, go back and say, “Nice job on that.” Be that boss that actually notices improvements.

      Make sure they have what they need to do their jobs. This is huge. It can open doors for you if you are not doing this already.

      Ask them if they need something from you that you have neglected. When they answer, role model how to accept that news. That is pretty powerful stuff right there. You answer them with thoughtful consideration, they are going to see you in a new light.

  9. Decimus*

    I was really unhappy with my last job – I left after two months – and part of it was the lack of feedback. I had NO idea how well I was doing, particularly with procedural stuff that varies from company to company. My manager was rarely there. At the EXIT interview I was told “I hope [manager’s manager] didn’t give you a hard time, she’s critical of everyone” – I said she’d barely spoken to me at all. Apparently everyone in management had been REALLY happy with my work, but nobody had thought to TELL me this.

    1. Suzanne*

      Lack of feedback of any kind has been more of an issue than anything for me. I had one job in particular that after nearly a year, I still had no idea, really, what I was I charge of or exactly what to do. The direction pretty much consisted of “You are in charge of this department” and that was about it. No organizational hierarchy, no job description beyond “You are in charge of X, Y, & Z” , no technology training beyond “We have several computer systems & databases that you need to use”, and lots of encouragement to look in the shared drive for everything (but nothing in the shared drive was organized, dated, or categorized).

      I don’t mind negative feedback except when it relates to something I had no idea I was responsible for or for something that needed to be done a certain way but I was simply supposed to absorb that information from an unknown source.

  10. Jessa*

    I had this issue with a manager where I was a temp. The full time company employees got statistics and regular feedback. They had ours but never gave any to us. I finally went to the agency on site person (they used so many of our temps that a permanent liaison was in the building when we were,) and said “Look, lack of feedback does not mean everything is going right. I know the statistics exist because they’re automatically generated and we’re in the same system as the employees are, how about getting us access?” She really had no idea that none of the information was being given to us at all. We started to get access and things that might not have been going well started to get fixed. It was like the company wanted us to figure things out by osmosis with no guidance.

    tl/dr: Sometimes you have to go and ask for feedback proactively.

    1. Suzanne*

      “It was like the company wanted us to figure things out by osmosis with no guidance.” Sadly, I run across this far to often in today’s workplace, especially with technology. Just figure it out! I noticed in education, too, when my children were in school.

  11. In progress*

    My manager is #2. I’m fine with soliciting critical feedback, but I have no idea how to also request positive feedback to balance it out! It is also getting demoralizing and making me wonder if I’m actually improving. Is there a way to ask for this, or should I just accept that this is her style?

  12. lenina*

    One thing to consider, some of us are as completely freaked out at the thought of giving feedback as you were when you had to give an oral report in school.

    In my case, I received a surprise promotion to manager out of the clear blue. I was all of a sudden left to manage a peer who is older than me, and has been at the company twice as long as I have, and who was certain he would get the job. Even though I have more relevant experience in our field, experience leading large teams in complex projects, and a degree in said field, he feels like my promotion was completely unjustified and that I stole his job. I have never had a manager that provided any regular feedback other than general back patting, so I am truly at a loss when trying to do it myself. Whenever I know I will have to meet with him re performance review, raise time, etc… I am stressed for days in advance. I would rather have a root canal. I know I will be confronted about something.

    In my defense, I want to become a good manager. I read everything I can and ask for advice from my manager friends. I’m really trying to improve. I’m just really intimidated by this one direct report.

    Ok. I’m bracing for the barrage of ” you’re what’s wrong with workplaces today” type comments. I will bear them in the hope that I will also get some helpful advice.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      You’re not what’s wrong with workplaces today :) You’re actually totally normal. Lots of people feel this way!

      If I were you, I’d start working on giving MORE feedback. If your’e only giving it at special occasions (review time), of course it feels daunting. If you can normalize it and make it a regular part of your interactions, it will get a lot easier.

      Also: Are you sure you should be keeping this guy? He sounds like a colossal pain.

      1. Anonymous*

        Thanks. He is a pain. When we were peers, I handled all of the systems except one. He handled that one. I don’t know much about it – it’s complex and in a bit of a mess – and it’s a critical system. Our dept has been so understaffed that there’s just been no time for me to learn it well enough not to depend on him. I finally got a new position approved and hired. That person is gradually taking over all the daily tasks I have been doing. I’m hoping that in a few months I’ll be freed up enough to start reverse engineering that system to learn how it’s put together. A big part of our problem is that I need him too much and he knows it. I am working to change that, but we are so swamped, it’s taking longer than I’d planned.

    2. Wakeen's Teapots Ltd.*

      Not to get all touchy feely, but I’d like to give you a big hug right this second.

      ALL of us go through this, all of us who aren’t unfeeling jerks that is. After a zillion years, I’m finally better at it, but it is hard to initiate an interaction where you know either 1) you’re going to make the other person feel bad or 2) you’re going to create negative flack coming back on you.

      What I have learned is that most of the time it is me and some of the time it is them.

      With your run of the mill poor or lackluster performer, it is mostly on me if I am putting off dealing with it because I don’t feel like getting into a thing. I need to organize myself and suck it up so they get a chance to work on their issues and I get a chance to improve our processes.

      If there is someone that I (or someone on my management team) is really dreading meeting with, I’ve learned to consider that there’s a good chance the problem is the employee and not management. I learned this after a couple years of beating myself up about my poor management skills due to a couple employees on my direct report team, only to find that when I finally removed them, my team functioned beautifully and damn if I wasn’t a decent manager after all.

      Translation: I thought I was a poor manager because I couldn’t change their behavior and because any meetings with them got super twisted emotionally and I began to avoid the interactions because they were so stressful. What was true was that I was acting like a poor manager because the problem was them, not me, and the right answer was removing them. I was so busy looking at myself, I forgot to consider that the real problem was the employees (who had both learned to manipulate me emotionally, btw). My beleaguered team survived this but I put us all through a few more years of stress than need be.

      So! My trick now is to be as analytical as possible. It’s all about process. If someone is gumming up our process with poor performance, I think “okay, gotta fix the process” not “omg I gotta talk to Joe about what he screwed up, this is gonna suck, where are my tums”.

      You’ll get there. In the meantime, consider what steps you can take to improve or remove problem employee X who is gumming up your process.

      1. Suzanne*

        Amen. Personally, most of the time if I’m performing poorly, it’s because I have been given so little direction, that I have no clue how to proceed. Example: I might be a fabulous people person in a retail setting, but if I don’t know how to run the intricacies of the cash register or what is the process of doing a return, I will fail. Most of us can’t pick up this stuff by osmosis but in many environments, we are expected to do so.

  13. Chris*

    My all time worst manager was somewhere close to both #1 and #3 – critical, but mostly said nothing more than either “thanks” or “let’s debrief – how do you think that went?” The latter one always seemed pretty condescending given her tone. The hard part was that I was hitting well above my goals (I’m a grant fundraiser) every quarter during the time I worked for her, but never got anything more positive than “thanks”. I actually did not think of myself as someone who needed a lot of verbal praise until I was in a place where I received none.

  14. John*

    I like the way you divided the different shades of the lack of feedback. All of them can be detrimental to staff retention and achieving success at a project when working as a team. Recently we’ve been observing how technology can assist manager – simple applications can help sharing feedback on the go and keep employees more engaged. Having said that, “change happens when we adopt new behaviours, not just new technology”.

  15. BTW*

    Old post but I’m going to comment anyways. :) My past employer was #2 but worse. All feedback was negative and nothing was good enough. As the owner of a major retailer they strived to be the best in our region and for the most part, they were. But the managers were crying out for feedback (good or bad) that never came. Often the managers would be scheduled for performance reviews then the boss wouldn’t follow through. More often than not, bonuses were promised (based on a set of accomplishments) but never paid out. (And this wasn’t for a lack of the accomplishments getting completed) If that wasn’t bad enough, I created a lot of the new bonus structures for them and am ashamed to say that some of them were designed with completely unattainable goals. When my boss actually laughed about it to me I was disgusted to say the least. (I didn’t stay very long after this. I couldn’t work for someone like that!) I know everyone says they are “overworked and underpaid” but this team was. There were so many good managers there with so much potential and it’s unfortunate because they failed to see their own value and thus never looked elsewhere. It was a very good learning experience for me in future management roles. I tried to do the best I could with my team but when problems begin and end at the top it was hard to get anything accomplished.

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