Providing Feedback to Employees

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Your employees expect your feedback whether it is a pat on the back, or time for change. This module will explore some different feedback models, as well as some ways to make your feedback effective and encouraging.

Feedback Model

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Time and place: When you are offering feedback to an employee, give consideration to your environment, and to your timing. Never offer negative feedback in front of colleagues; it is unprofessional and can damage the reputation of the employee (co-workers seeing someone criticized in front of others tend to not forget it), and you (that you care so little for your staff that you would embarrass them in front of their co-workers).

The best place to provide feedback is somewhere quiet, like an office or meeting room. The feedback needs to come as soon as possible after the event (later the same day or the following day is good), unless you are feeling emotionally charged about something. 

If an employee has done something that violates a rule at work, you may have to act immediately. However, if you can hold off and get your own emotions in check first, you will avoid saying something that you might later regret.

Types of Feedback: Just as there are many types of conversations, so are there a range of feedback models. Feedback can be formal, as we will discuss with the feedback sandwich in a moment, or informal. Informal feedback can be just as meaningful and valuable as formal feedback. 

Informal feedback, such as recognition for something that has been learned and properly applied to the workplace, or offering a small reward for overall performance, can really perk up your employee’s day, immediately turning into a burst of energy or creativity for that individual. 

More formal feedback is often used with certain benchmarks and at certain times of the year. Some organizations schedule annual, formal performance reviews and may also include quarterly or monthly meetings to review and document progress, strengths, and opportunities for growth. 

The 360-degree performance review is a tool that, instead of relying on performance comments from the immediate supervisor, also solicits feedback from people within a 360-degree radius of the employee. Direct reports, colleagues, managers, internal customers, and even external customers can all contribute to feedback for a 360-degree review. 

No matter which tools you prefer, and whether you are more likely to rely on formal or informal feedback methods, keep in mind that feedback is provided as a way to encourage growth and development of your staff. Feedback can help employees along with their career goals, not just to meet the goals of the company or your specific department, but also to reach their own. 

The Feedback Sandwich 

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Managers often use a “feedback sandwich” as a way to provide feedback and to cushion criticism. The benefits include having positive comments that frame the critique. A feedback sandwich typically looks like this:

  1. Make a specific positive comment
  2. Offer critique or suggestions for improvement
  3. Make an overall positive comment

The drawback to using a feedback sandwich is that it does not take long before an employee knows that if you are leading a conversation and offer a compliment, there will be some kind of negative comment to follow it. It is human nature for them to filter out any compliment you make, and to focus on the negative comments. 

Therefore, instead of offering a feedback sandwich that you build, we recommend that you have the employee get involved, particularly with the middle. The value in this is that when you are working with adults, chances are they will know what went wrong and have ideas about how to improve.

Instead of a sandwich made with white bread and a jam filling, like this:

  1. Hi Paul, I really thought your presentation went well yesterday. 
  2. But I think that if you had more statistics in your report, you wouldn’t have had to work so hard to sell the idea to the group. 
  3. You’re a strong member of our team, and I’m looking forward to your continued contributions. 

Try multi-grain and homemade fruit spread with hazelnut drizzle:

  1. Paul, I thought we could sit and debrief the presentation you gave yesterday. Congratulations on getting the support for your project – I think it’s a really valuable one for our division, and a great reflection of your strength as a leader. 

Paul might just say “Thanks!” or, “They were a tough crowd.” You can probe a bit here and then encourage him to fill in the middle, or you could say:

  1. “They were certainly interested in what you had to say, and had lots of questions. I thought for a moment that things might go off the rails, but you managed to field their questions and keep them on track at the same time.”

Responses could look like this:

  • Paul: “I will have more detail in the presentation next time I do something like this. Even if they don’t want it then, at least it’ll be there as back up.”
  • You: “It can be tough to know exactly what to anticipate from them as a board. One thing I have done before is to have a couple of extra slides hidden in the presentation that I can bring up if they ask, or a couple of spare story boards or charts, just in case. Also, I think that I could have done a better job of introducing you or perhaps preparing you to meet the executives. Are there other things that I should have done, or that you would add to your plan?”

And then at the end of the conversation, offer that multi-grain kind of closing:

  1. “Paul, you got what you went in for, and also earned credibility in their eyes in the way you managed their questions. That makes for a job well done. If there is anything that you want some help from me on next time, or if you’d like to do a practice run with the team, or a pre-meeting survey to the board directly, that might be helpful, too. I thought the design you went with was brilliant, and it’s great you have the green light that you need. If I can do anything more to help next time, let me know.”

A Powerful Tip: When offering feedback, avoid the word “but” after you make a comment, especially a compliment. The word “but” is a negative indicator, meaning that it negates whatever preceded it in the sentence. A listener often shuts out everything that comes before the word “but.” 

Encouraging Growth and Development

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Giving good, meaningful feedback is hard work. Appreciate that this is a learned skill, so you will improve with practice. Take the time to ask questions, observe, and refine your skills. 

The payoff for you as a manager is that even if you are giving someone unwanted news, they will appreciate the way that you deliver it. In addition, news that is well delivered is more likely to be listened to than is feedback that is poorly thought out, or coldly articulated. 

You may have also noticed that our multi-grain sandwich highlighted some areas where you, the manager, could improve. This not only gives you some things to work on, but it shows your staff that learning and growing never stop.

Case Study

Yuri and Tosca were managers at a civil engineering company, and were considering the best ways to give feedback and criticism to their employees without causing a dispute or lowering morale. Yuri suggested they use the Feedback Sandwich and explained that it was the perfect way to provide feedback and cushion criticism by: making a specific positive comment, then offering critique or suggestions for improvement, and finally making an overall positive comment to cap off the ‘sandwich’. Tosca agreed that this seemed a positive way of approaching feedback on tasks completed and the pair decided to implement it in the company. They were happy when their critiques were well-received and worked on by the employees in question and could move onto managing new tasks.