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Tips for Giving Constructive Feedback to Employees

Lisa A. Burke-Smalley Ph.D., SPHR


For Chattanooga ATD 2015 Newsletter


Most managers don’t need tips for providing positive feedback as giving specific words of recognition come much easier than engaging in the “tough workplace conversations.” However, we owe it to our organization, work unit, customers, and employees themselves to provide constructive feedback in a timely manner. When we avoid these situations, they often get worse and escalate; so it is typically best to clarify performance expectations as problematic workplace behaviors emerge. 

Research shows that giving feedback helps guide and focus employee behavior over things they control, all in the spirit of continuous improvement. At the same time, when constructive feedback is relayed poorly, employee performance can actually decrease. So, below are tips (along with a “running illustration”) to reduce anxiety and more successfully interact with the employee. These tips are useful for the workplace as well as non-work situations to more successfully navigate these face-to-face exchanges.

  1. Own your feelings. (“I am concerned about your tardiness.”)
  2. Use specific, behavioral examples. (“In the last 2 months, you’ve been 15 minutes late, or more, to 3 of 5 department meetings.”)
  3. Describe the impact on the work unit, organization, co-workers or customers (“Unfortunately, when you are tardy, the group meetings end up lasting longer because we have to repeat issues.”)
  4. Wait for a response from the employee. (“What do you think about what I’m saying here?”)
  5. Relay or reiterate your expectations for performance or any relevant company policies (“I expect you to arrive on time for department meetings; if you’re going to be late, you need to call/email me prior. I would appreciate seeing immediate improvement in this area of your work performance and will follow-up with you in 30 days to discuss your progress.”)
  6. Provide and discuss suggestions to address root causes of the problem (“Some ideas for dealing with this are_______; what other ideas do you have to address this issue?”)
  7. Reiterate your support & get agreement (“I want our department and you to be successful. Would you agree?”)

What is critical for readers to notice in this process and sample script is that at no point does the manager confuse the worker by tacking on praise at the end in order to “sugarcoat the criticism.” Unfortunately, this is a common detour that constructive communications take because most supervisors and employees deplore conflict situations; however, the tactic is mis-guided and confuses the worker.  Other tactics you also want to avoid in these conversations include the following:

  • Avoid comparisons, e.g., “You just need to be more like your colleague, Sam.”
  • Avoid absolutes, e.g., “You always interrupt me.”
  • Avoid evaluating perceived motives, e.g., “You just don’t want to help the team.”

As we might expect, employees can respond in diverse ways to these exchanges. If the worker says nothing and goes into “silent mode”, you can wait for a response (since most people dislike silence) or ask an open ended question (e.g., “What are you thinking about what I’m saying?”). It’s quite possible there are elements to the situation that you’re unaware of and that once you’re made aware of more details from the employee’s perspective, you could help with problem solving. In other words, it’s important that you have a communication exchange with the employee and not just talk at them. Another response could be tears or crying; one way to deal with this response is to ask if the employee would like to take a break or visit the restroom to re-group. And how about if the worker starts to blame others and point fingers at other co-workers? It’s important in these situations to remind the worker that presently you’re talking with him/her and want to focus on behavior under his/her control.

As with most workplace and life behaviors, the more you practice, the better you’ll get. So, the next time you find yourself preferring to crawl under a shell and avoid a workplace encounter, try the steps outlined here to increase your odds of a productive encounter.

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Chattanooga Area Chapter of ATD
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