How to Provide Feedback Without Hurting Morale

Written by
Rebecca Smith

Jul 10, 2018

Jul 10, 2018 • by Rebecca Smith

When giving feedback to each other, research shows the best performing teams make six positive comments to every negative one. The worst performing teams make three times as many negative comments as positive. Even in marriage, people who give five positive comments to each negative one, stay together whereas people who end up divorced give three positive to four negative comments.

Giving performance feedback is important to help people improve. It's easier said than done. Read on to learn how to provide feedback without hurting morale.

Accent the Positive

Effective feedback isn't just about feeding back on the poor performance areas. It's also about encouraging and continuing the good performance. There is always something positive to say.

Accenting the positive sets the right tone for a positive discussion about opportunities for improvement. The research shows that giving positive feedback does help improve overall performance. Acknowledging your employee's positive contributions tells them you value them and builds their confidence in you.

Don't wait until you have a criticism to deliver to give some praise. Your people will soon discover that this is a tactic for sweetening the pill and stop listening to the praise. Find opportunities to acknowledge and recognize improvements, effort, and good performance whenever you can.

Be Specific

General criticisms are unhelpful. They don't provide your employee with clarity about what they need to do to improve. Even general praise doesn't help your employee to understand what it is they need to keep doing.

Don't say, "great presentation". Describe what was good about it. Say, "good use of humor and a clear call to action".

When giving feedback about performance try to find measurements that help your employee understand what their shortfall is. Performance can usually be measured in terms of quality, quantity, cost or time. A specific goal helps both them and you to understand what the gap in performance is.

Focus on What They Did, Not Who They Are

We can rarely change who we are but we may be able to change what we do. Make your feedback about what your employee did rather than their intentions or values. People are less threatened by this kind of feedback and can focus on what they need to do rather than defending their hurt feelings.

You may suggest an employee help another employee with their extra workload and then recognize their teamwork. This is better than criticising them by saying they are selfish. One encourages continued teamwork and the other sets up resentment.

Be sincere

It is easier to take criticism and to respond positively to it if you feel that it is well-intentioned. This is difficult to establish at the time the feedback is given. It relies on an existing good relationship.

Having a track record of sincerity and goodwill creates a basis for giving employee feedback. Mutual trust can develop built on a reputation of integrity. It's important to be consistent and give positive feedback as well as criticism.

A sincere interest in helping your people to be the best they can be means they can take the feedback. It feels fair and constructive. Give people reason to believe in you by a pattern of trustworthy behavior.

Be Immediate

Saving feedback up until a formal performance review meeting is one of the reasons people hate performance reviews. By the time the review meeting comes around the memory has faded and often the opportunity to do something about the performance has passed. It feels like the feedback is only being raised so that there is something to talk about and something to write on the review documentation.

Give feedback as near to the time of the performance issue as possible. Help people process the feedback and do something about it. Perhaps by the time of the formal performance review, you can both be celebrating an improvement in performance rather than trying to remember what actually happened.

Check Understanding

One of the reasons we give employees feedback is to clarify expectations. Often poor performance is as a result of a failure to understand the expectation. If they don't know what's expected it's hardly surprising that they don't do it.

Ask people what they think the goal or expectation is. Better still make expectations clear by training people. If they don't seem to understand, clarify your expectations.

Seek to Understand

Once people know what is expected there are four reasons why they might fail to meet them. They may not have the knowledge, skills or experience to achieve the standard. If this is the case then train them and give them a chance to get up to speed.

They may not have the confidence to perform. Give them support and encouragement. Praise the small steps they make towards the goal.

They may lack the motivation to perform. Find out what motivates them. They may not understand the consequences of repeated failure so let them know it's important for them to improve.

It may be that they are in the wrong job. You should only come to this conclusion after checking the other factors. Letting them go may be doing them a great favor if it means they find the right job even if it's somewhere else.

Ask Questions and Listen

Asking people to assess their own performance puts them in control of their own improvement. Sometimes people will set themselves more demanding goals than you would. Asking them what's going well and what can be improved empowers them.

Listen hard to the answers. Try to understand how they see things. Encourage them to take responsibility for their own performance.

Ask for their permission to give them feedback. If they give it you have created a sense of ownership and greater commitment to improving. Agree on improvement goals and timescales for further employee feedback with them.

Ask for Feedback on Your Performance Feedback

Learning how to give feedback to employees is a useful management skill. It improves with practice. Asking for feedback from your employees shows you believe in taking responsibility for improving performance and that feedback should be welcomed.

After receiving your own feedback, you may want to learn more about giving performance feedback. If you do, read more here.