When to Give Your Employees Feedback (and When Not To)

There's a balance to be struck between giving employees the feedback they need to be successful and having employees dread the sight of you because it means yet another correction.    I've worked for an organization where not only was feedback too frequent, it was delivered by just about everyone.  It starts to make an employee feel like they're constantly being watched and judged, which does not provide optimal conditions for thoughtful, innovative work.  You do not need to give your employees feedback about every little thing they do, but it is important for you to recognize the times when you should give feedback so that you give them clear direction about how they're doing.

Give feedback when the impact of the behavior is significant.

When the employee does something that has a major affect on the team's work, that is a time for you as the manager to give feedback.  If the effect was positive, it's important to not let it go without notice, and it's even more important to make clear the specific thing the employee did that mattered. If you're not sure, it's good to get the employee to think it through and articulate it. Often, our strongest employees have the hardest time identifying what it is that is different about their approach, because to them it's just the obvious way to do things.  If you want the behavior repeated, though, it needs to be named.
If the effect was negative, you may want to spend time reflecting on what the consequences of the behavior should be.  It is a good idea to consult with HR if you are considering putting the employee on a performance plan of any kind.  If it's not that serious but still important to address, then be sure to make it very clear to the employee that the behavior is not acceptable and should not be repeated.  

Give feedback when there is a pattern of behavior.

As long as the first instance of a behavior doesn't have a significant impact, it doesn't make sense to give feedback at that time.  However, once a pattern has been established, that's a good opportunity to weigh in.  I call this the "Rule of 3," based on a conversation I had with an excellent manager who shared that she waits until the third occurrence of a behavior to say something.  The first time could be a fluke, the second time shows that it's not, and the third time gives you the impetus to act.  If you let things continue without giving the feedback, the employee won't know that you've noticed it.  This applies, by the way, whether the results of the behavior are positive or negative.  The third occurrence is a perfect time to say, "I've noticed that you've been ..... and it's affecting the team's work by ....."   

Don't give feedback if it's a one-time mistake that the employee has acknowledged.

There's no need to add salt to the wound if the employee already knows he or she screwed up and is committed to doing better.  In these cases, the important thing is to help the employee learn and figure out together how to do things differently in the future to avoid similar issues.  Help the employee to identify the root cause, so that even if this exact thing is unlikely to happen again, you can strengthen the team's processes and prevent other events.

Don't give feedback if you're irritated with the employee but aren't sure why.

You should not give feedback to an employee unless you can identify specific behaviors (which could include lack of desired behaviors, but not intentions or personality traits) and the impact those behaviors are having on the work, the team, and/or the employee's success.  If you can identify these things, by all means give the feedback, but make sure it's not just a case of the employee's style rubbing you the wrong way or irritation that they do things differently than you.  

Don't give feedback if the employee can't do anything about it.

Feedback should always be about behavior, and about things that the employee has control over.  If you give constructive feedback to an employee who is dealing with inefficient processes, illogical policies, or insufficient resources, you will just demotivate him or her and also damage your own credibility.  (These cases are, however, great opportunities to commend the employee's creativity and perseverance in the face of obstacles.)

Don't give feedback if you're unsure or unprepared.

An HBR.org (Harvard Business Review) Management Tip of the Day e-mail shared some additional examples from the Giving Effective Feedback book of times you should not give feedback:

  • You do not have all the information
  • It concerns something that the recipient can’t control
  • The person appears to be highly emotional or especially vulnerable
  • You don’t have time to explain it thoroughly
  • It’s based on a personal preference, not a need for more effective behavior
  • You haven’t come up with a solution for how the person can move forward

Giving feedback is one of your core tasks as a manager.  It's important to time it well, so that your employees know how they're doing and don't have a feeling of dread every time they see you.  You'll know you're doing it well when your annual review meetings are a cursory discussion of the previous year because the employee already received all of the relevant feedback from you along the way.

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