11 ways to give better feedback at work

You and your employees have something to gain when you talk often and openly

When you think about giving or receiving feedback at work, do you feel a pang of dread? According to Tamra Chandler, founder and CEO of PeopleFirm LLC and the author of Feedback (and Other Dirty Words): Why We Fear It, How to Fix It, most of us do. But despite its bad reputation, feedback is extraordinarily valuable, and rethinking what feedback actually means can help both parties benefit. “We have to reset what the definition of feedback is,” says Chandler. “We kind of have it wrong.”

One of the all-too-common scenarios in which feedback fails to do good is the performance review. When feedback is given only in a high-stakes environment like an annual review, it creates anxiety and can preclude the employee from taking action. “Managers should be sharing feedback on an ongoing basis and not wait until year-end when it’s too late for the individual to act on the feedback,” says Courtney Brand, founder and CEO of thelighthouse, a personalized career-advice platform that operates out of WeWork 450 Lexington Ave in Manhattan. “It’s about what they need to do differently to get to the next level and keep growing.” 

At the company level, the stakes are even higher. Eighty-five percent of American workers said they would consider leaving a job after receiving what they considered an unfair review, according to Reflektive, a people-management platform. 

The health of your company depends on your manager’s ability to provide a good evaluation and your employees’ capacity to use feedback as a skill-strengthener. So it’s time to retire feedback’s bad rap and rebrand it as fuel for success. Here are 11 ways to give better feedback at work: 

1. Reframe your understanding of feedback

Feedback isn’t the same thing as criticism. “People assume that feedback is bad, when really, the best feedback is both positive and constructive,” says Brand. Research shows that, while workers should be aware of their shortcomings, employees will perform best when they’re cued into their strengths. It can be empowering to have a supervisor’s perspective highlight those strengths, Brand says. 

“As cliché as it sounds, thoughtful feedback is a gift,” says Brand. “When it comes from someone who knows you and your work well, and who has spent the time to be thoughtful about your strengths and weaknesses, feedback can be the game-changing input that helps you reach your full potential.”

Brand says it’s important to remind yourself and the person to whom you’re giving feedback that the time you’ll spend talking is intended to benefit both of you. “That mindset shift will reframe the conversation and make you both more open to having a constructive conversation.” 

2. Ask before you deliver

Feedback should happen often, but it should never come as a complete surprise. If you’d like to extend feedback, you don’t necessarily have to be book an appointment on the calendar, but it is important to state your intention before delivering it. This way you can ensure that “both parties have the chance to be in the right mental state,” says Chandler.

Before you dive in, ask if your employee has a few minutes to hear your POV. This is for your benefit and the benefit of the feedback recipient: you should have a clear idea about what you’re planning to discuss. 

3. Prepare for the conversation

You might prepare for the conversation by keeping a working document for each of your direct reports, Branch says, so you can “jot down examples of what they’re doing well and areas they could improve. You can then reference this document to find the recurring themes that you can analyze and share in your next feedback conversation.”

If you don’t work closely with the person, Branch advises familiarizing yourself with their work by talking to people they do encounter daily. “This will also help to remove any personal biases you may not even realize you have,” she says. 

4. Come with context

Context keeps the conversation focused. It’s as simple as saying, “this is the thing I want to talk about and why,” says Chandler. The secret is to provide some context for the person’s goals. This goes back to being future-focused, and it removes any room for misinterpretation. 

You’ll also want to have an action plan. “When you give them feedback, share how you are going to help them reach their career goals and act on the feedback,” advises Brand. “That means investing your own time and connecting them with resources, trainings, and people that can help.”

5. Discuss just a few points

On your agenda, include just a handful of items to discuss so that you don’t overwhelm the recipient. If you’re making feedback part of your regular communication, this shouldn’t be a problem. Prioritize staying “focused on the things [you both] care about [so the conversation is] light and easy, and it’s future-focused,” says Chandler. 

Storing up a laundry list of talking points is similar to saving feedback for the annual review. “We as humans can’t process that many things at once,” Chander explains.

6. Assume the best

The purpose of feedback is to help your report improve, so you should “always go into every feedback conversation assuming the best,” says Brand. “Your job is to make [your report] successful, so ask questions like ‘What barriers can I remove for you?’ and ‘How can I help?’” If you reframe the concept of feedback as a gift, as Brand mentioned, you can feel more relaxed about your employee’s response. 

7. Don’t harp on the past 

Rather than using feedback to look back at what went wrong, explore the goals your team is working toward. “Feedback has to be about helping ourselves improve, grow, and advance,” says Chandler. Dwelling on past mistakes makes for pretty useless conversation. “The only way [looking in the past] can be helpful is when you do so to think about how it can be different or used again in the future,” she says.

8. Give positive feedback, and more often

Positive feedback is one of the best ways to create a positive work environment, but it does not get communicated nearly enough. “If all of us could start calling out and recognizing the good work we see around us, and the value people have—well, those little tiny things can really change the world,” says Chandler. It’s a misconception that sharing what your employee could be doing better is the only way to get results. “Positive feedback is the most powerful feedback of all. It’s the one that will drive the most improved performance.”

9. Whatever you do, don’t serve a compliment sandwich

Say something nice, say something critical, and top it all off with another nice thing. This is basically something Michael Scott would do, and it’s rarely productive, says Chandler, who actually refers to the compliment sandwich as the “s–t sandwich.” “A lot of people were trained to do this,” she says, “but feedback needs to be focused.” You’ve lost focus if you’re serving a s–t sandwich. “Your message can be really lost, and then there’s no context,” adds Chandler. “It can also break trust—if you’re on the receiving end of one of these, you might be confused about the extender’s intent.”

10. Take the edge off

Chandler says many people have been taught—erroneously— that “brutal honesty” is the best way to share feedback. “When people are focused on being brutally honest, they aren’t thinking about why they’re offering the feedback,” or the person receiving it. Brutal honesty can be dangerous because “it can be weaponized.” When you’re focused on being as candid as possible, you’re not thinking about the value of what you’re sharing.

11. Encourage your team members to give each other—and you—feedback 

Feedback is a two-way street, Chandler and Brand say. Some employees can be reticent about this, so Chandler suggests starting at a team level. “There are fun things you can do as a leader to get your teams engaged in giving feedback,” she says. Working on a gratitude board, writing on Post-Its, or doing some kind of training helps people build skills around feedback. Focus on the good stuff, give compliments, and highlight your team’s success. “The more you do this as a team, the more you’ll start to see individuals sharing feedback as well,” she says. 

Feedback can benefit everyone, says Brand, so you’re the one missing out if you don’t open yourself up to hearing out your team. 

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