5 Rules for Feedback That Work

When we talk about communication in the form of feedback at work, both managers and employees tend to get anxious and basic conversations quickly become burdensome and uncomfortable.

In my post, Did you mean to say it that way? I wrote about how we communicate and the importance of  being genuine vs. scripted.

With a bit of practice and some simple guidelines, the feedback conversations people normally dread can take place much easier. Practice doesn’t always make us perfect but it will surely make the process easier. Before hitting the topics, it’s important to remember that preparation is key.

We’re working with humans who have minds of their own that are filled with opinions. It’s reasonable to have a dialog and anticipate any follow-up questions that may arise for an effective discussion. Notice it’s about having a discussion – when people are speaking to each other – not at each other.

Speak Productively

If you want the person to engage in a discussion, avoid speaking in the first person. I guarantee that if you use the word “you” in your conversation, the person will not hear a word you’re saying. It’s natural for humans to feel defensive when addressed this way and while you think they’re paying attention, they’re probably rehearsing comments of defense in their head.

Keep the conversation in the third person and speak about the work issue or behavior. A simple example is to avoid statements like, “You missed the last 2 deadlines” and say, “The last 2 deadlines haven’t been met.” When people are addressed in a non-threatening way, they’ll become more receptive and self-aware.

Because this style of communicating may not come naturally, a trick I use when coaching managers is to visualize the issue or behavior as a real object that you can touch and hold. It’s the basic rule of addressing the issue or behavior rather than the individual.

Be Prepared

During a feedback discussion, you should anticipate questions regarding someone’s work performance so have your details handy. Additional specifics provide clarity so that everyone is on the same page regarding expectations. The last thing anyone needs is for either person to leave a discussion feeling confused. You’d be surprised how frequently managers will talk “all around” a topic instead of addressing it head on.

Set Expectations

You may be asked how to come up with solutions or ideas for improvement. Since employees should make an effort to be accountable for their careers and continued learning, managers should turn the question around and ask the employee to think about ways they believe will help them to work smarter. We shouldn’t be treating employees like little soldiers who will do as we command, we should be encouraging them to think about how they work.

When we set expectations to focus on upward mobility, this provides an opportunity to get into the habit of solving work challenges both independently and collectively.

Manage Anger and Emotion

Even when you’ve made every effort to speak productively, how do you handle a situation if someone responds with anger? When humans become angry, they’re reacting to feeling offended, wronged or threatened. It’s a modern form of the traditional fight-or-flight response and important to recognize. You can diffuse the anger by acknowledging the reaction and calmly start to ask the person questions. When you ask questions relative to the specifics of what they’re angry about, the person will almost be forced to calm down so he or she can answer the questions.

Obviously, unpredictable situations can raise challenges but the most important thing to do is to continue to treat the issues as objects without taking these reactions personally or allowing ego to get in the way. Remain rational and get the conversation back on track.

Provide Ongoing and Frequent Feedback

Most people appreciate getting a temperature check of how they’re doing at work even if it’s a weekly 10-minute chat. Employees have a higher level of commitment, contentment and confidence when they know where they stand. It’s also an excellent way to create and build a positive employer-employee relationship.  Keep in mind I’m not referring to a formal performance review process of having a sit down and reviewing performance with a subjective form with little boxes checked off next to an employee score rating.  (That’s a topic for another day!)

When leaders and managers begin to realize that the best employee-employer relationship is one that is mutually beneficial, it’s noticeable and can have a positive ripple effect throughout any organization.  After all, employees are humans and deserve to be treated as such.

Photo credit iStockphoto

About the Author

Kimberly Patterson

Kimberly Patterson is the founder of Unconventional HR. An HR pro turned consultant, she has 25 years of progressive experience as a strategic HR and business leader in a variety of industries. Her hands-on and innovative approach allows her to create and deliver HR solutions to meet business challenges and needs by managing human capital, talent acquisition and technology. Connect with her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/kimberly_patt, or at kim@unconventionalhr.com.


Andrea Ballard

Kimberly, do you recommend scheduling the discussion with the employee ahead of time and giving them some advance warning so they also can be prepared? Or do you find that causes too much anxiety? I struggle with finding the best way to set the stage for the conversation.

Kimberly Roden

Hi Andrea, I know exactly the type of anxiety that you’re referring to and it’s difficult to answer with a one-size-fits-all response given my own prior experiences. I have found that sometimes the level of anxiety will outweigh the actual tone of the meeting. Meaning, folks can really work themselves up into a tizzy over a meeting that isn’t as grave as they can perceive it to be. I’ve found that frequent, brief and impromptu meetings are far more productive and can evolve into a great way for regular discussions where both managers and employees learn, minus the anxiety. Many new managers have anxiety over doing this as well.

Jennifer Miller

I really love that idea of imaging the problem as something you can touch and feel to seperate it from the individual. It reminds me of a technique in “narrative” mediation I’ve learned – which is to give a conflict a name and describe it, rather than connect it to the parties involved in the dispute. Great tips for coaching and giving feedback.

Kimberly Roden

Thanks very much Jennifer — yes, it plays a big role in removing the human being from the problem so it can be discussed productively. I also compare it to the big rule in parenting — when our children are doing things we’re not happy with, we should be disliking the behavior, not the child.


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