The Subtle Difference Between Feedback That Develops vs Demoralizes

Have you ever tried to give an employee performance feedback and had the discussion go sideways on you? If so, you’re like most managers. Giving performance feedback rarely ends well, and can often end up damaging the relationship. That’s why most managers avoid giving performance feedback or wait until the next scheduled performance review to ‘give it to them.’

It may be a surprise to some to learn that most employees wish their manager wouldn’t wait. In fact, in a recent literature review I conducted, “avoiding confrontation” was one of the most demotivating leadership traits cited by employees. Being ineffective at giving performance feedback is the most acute symptom of avoiding confrontation.

6 Keys To Providing Feedback That Inspires People to Change

Effective managers know that they can only succeed if the people they lead are succeeding. Here are a few keys to help you give your people feedback that inspires.

Key #1.  First ask yourself, is this really a big deal or is this something that is only an issue for you? I remember a tough VP of Construction once gave me some very insightful advice. After I complained to him about an issue I was having with an employee, he said “Be careful not to bring up every little thing that bothers you about this employee. Otherwise, she’ll end up feeling like she is walking on egg shells around you.”

Key #2.  It is best to give feedback immediately after you observe the behaviour that needs correcting. When you do, there is little room for the employee to deny it. Taking the employee aside and privately telling him what you observed is more likely to get a reaction like “Ya, I guess you’re right. I need to work on that.” than if you wait.

Key #3.  Make sure you are in the right frame of mind. If you are annoyed, count to ten and calm down. Ask yourself “Am I giving this feedback so that this person can be more successful, or so he doesn’t keep irritating me?” If it’s the former, your employee will feel it and may actually thank you for it. If it’s the latter, then you could do long-term damage to the relationship that will create a domino effect of problems for you down the road.

Key #4.  Don’t sugar-coat it. Believe it or not, top executives are among the worst at giving performance feedback because they can’t help sugar-coating their words. Their ability to sugar-coat things was one of the very skills that landed them the top job. When you sugar-coat the issue, I guarantee that your feedback will not sink in the way you think it did. It is misleading and will only add to the frustration of both parties.

Key #5.  Inquire, don’t judge. This is especially important when it comes to addressing behavioural issues such as tardiness or interpersonal behaviour. Say something like “That’s not normally like you, is everything all right today?” Or “How are things going for you right now?” Addictions and family issues can spill over into workplace performance. In Canada and other progressive nations, employers have a legal obligation to inquire about these issues (when there is sufficient cause) with a sincere desire to help the employee resolve the issues that are affecting their work performance.

Key #6.  Focus on the employee’s strengths, and find work-arounds for their weaknesses. If one of your employees is terrible at formatting documents, ask the best document formatter in the company if they would help your employee out. When you describe to the prospective helper how rare and valuable their skill set is, they will be proud that you called on them to help out. Your employee, in turn, will feel like you are trying to clear the path for them to be successful. If, however, your employee is not talented in an area that they need to be talented in for their role, don’t toss the baby out with the bathwater. Find a new role for them that capitalizes on their strengths. Whatever the case may be, don’t spend your time focusing on their weaknesses. As Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman wrote in First, Break All The Rules, “relationships preoccupied with weaknesses never end well.”

Managers don’t have to be confrontational, but they do have to know how to address poor performance. Fortunately, being an effective leader is less of an art than people think. It is as simple as knowing what to do and what not to do, then applying it.


Check out the Leadership Blind Spots Self-Evaluation for a list of the most common leadership dysfunctions.

3 Responses

  1. I love this list, particularly the first point. Anyone who is married, or has children needs to realize this point very quickly if they want to be a successful parent or spouse. The idea of bringing this into a leadership role outside of these parameters never really dawned on me, but makes complete sense.
    Thanks Michael for your helpful and insightful ideas on being a better and more effective leader!

  2. Mackinlay and John – I never really specifically thought about these suggestions being applicable to parenting, but in general, most leadership advice is just as applicable in the home as it is in the office. Thanks for pointing that out. I really enjoy your comments.

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