How to Give Effective Performance Feedback: Frameworks and Best Practices

While it may surprise some employees, managers are often just as anxious about giving feedback as employees are about receiving it, even when the feedback is positive. But, whether it’s enjoyable or not, providing constructive feedback is one of a manager’s most important responsibilities. Done right, such exchanges are a powerful way to improve employee behavior and performance, but initiating dialog to critique someone’s work can be stressful if you’re not sure how to best approach the task.

At the simplest level, the most effective feedback helps both the manager and the employee clearly and accurately identify the gap between expectations and output. However, it’s rarely as clear cut as rating someone’s achievements as either “good” or “bad.” Employees are human beings and there’s an art to assessing all the gray areas and nuances of any individual’s conduct, actions and outcomes.

Luckily, there are some foundational frameworks and best practices that managers can lean on when faced with the prospect of delivering feedback.

Not All Feedback is Equal

When evaluating feedback, you need to assess where it sits on each of two complementary scales: negative to positive and vague to specific. You can visualize this as a grid with four quadrants:

The most effective feedback—feedback that is both positive and specific—will live in the upper right-hand quadrant. Feedback that is negative but specific can also be effective, even though it’s less pleasant to deliver. Feedback that is vague, whether positive or negative, is much less effective.

Let’s look at some examples of what kinds of feedback might fall into each quadrant in the case of an employee who has been tasked with organizing some data for analysis:

As you can see, vague feedback is not very helpful. When it’s positive, it may be flattering, but it can actually create suspicion and anxiety because the recipient may not be able to take it at face value. When it’s negative, it demeans the employee’s self esteem and creates confusion because the recipient doesn’t know specifically what went wrong.

Specific feedback, on the other hand, is constructive and delivers the news—good or bad—without damaging the employee’s confidence. Negative feedback that is specific is a corrective measure that helps guide the employee to a more satisfactory solution. Positive feedback that is specific inspires and motivates the employee to continue performing well and even work to exceed expectations next time.

Five Tips for Crafting Effective Feedback

When you’re getting ready to provide feedback, you want to think about the task at two levels. At the higher level, you want to think big picture about the main topic you want to cover, where the employee is on their growth journey with your organization, and what kind of outcomes you’re hoping to achieve in the short and long term. From there, you can get down in the weeds with specifics about skills, tasks, achievements, etc. Here are a few tactical tips that will make it easier to capture all the relevant details in an appropriate and helpful way:

Be specific

As we’ve already established, specificity is critical to providing effective feedback. Wherever possible, include examples and data to help illustrate and clarify your feedback. Precision will not only help the employee understand the situation more fully, but it will also help you avoid slipping into an accusatory tone when you have to deliver negative feedback.

      • Unhelpful: You’ve been doing a great job with QA.
      • More Helpful: The extra time you put in to fully document all the bugs you discovered during the QA phase helped the dev team launch three days earlier than planned.

Be prescriptive

It’s important to remember that you’re not just providing feedback on what has happened in the past, you’re also trying to provide instruction and guidance for the future. Give your employees the information they need to take action. Whether you want them to change a specific behavior, take a different approach, or learn a new skill, be clear and direct about your expectations and make sure they have everything they need and are empowered to make the necessary changes.

      • Unhelpful: There have been some complaints about your approach to managing project meetings.
      • More Helpful: Your team would benefit from a more structured approach to project meetings. Providing a formal agenda prior to each meeting and a summary of next steps after each meeting would be really helpful.

Be positive

Even when the feedback is not great, try to present it in as positive a light as possible. Whenever possible, couch negative feedback in the context of the employee’s overall value and potential. It’s also important to balance the bad with the good when it comes to specific points. It’s human nature to focus on negative feedback. A good rule of thumb is to include six positive comments for each negative one.

      • Unhelpful: You seem to lack initiative when it comes to innovating on current procedures.
      • More Helpful: I believe you have some really great ideas on how we can improve procedures, and I’d love to see you bring more of them to the table.

Tell the whole story

When presenting feedback, take the time to give the employee the whole picture. You may take it for granted that they understand the impacts of their behaviors and actions on a larger stage, but they may not be fully aware of how what they do affects other employees, outcomes, and your organization’s ability to meet goals. Explain why what they do matters and how different levels of performance affect things like efficiency, profitability and so forth. Help them understand that they are an important part of a larger vision and mission.

      • Unhelpful: Your quarterly reports have been really helpful.
      • More Helpful: Your quarterly reports have been really helpful because the way you’ve broken the information down by company size has given the sales team some great insights into how to tailor their pitches.

Be professional

Always be respectful and objective. This helps alleviate the risk of the employee feeling like certain comments as personal, a perception which will send a feedback conversation hurtling off the rails.

      • Unhelpful: I don’t think you can handle this project.
      • More Helpful: While I really appreciate your enthusiasm, I’m not sure you have the right set of skills to manage this project.

Four Elements to Help You Create the Best Feedback Experience

There are other elements that go into a successful feedback session beyond the content of your message. Knowing when, where and how to deliver your feedback can make all the difference.

When — Not Just at Formal Reviews

While tradition dictates that feedback should be given primarily at annual performance reviews, there are actually many other opportunities for delivering feedback. While it’s not often advisable to provide off-the-cuff commentary in the heat of the moment, getting in the habit of providing feedback more frequently can go a long way toward improving overall performance incrementally on a day-to-day basis.

Instead of waiting for that once-a-year formal conversation, think about making a point to provide some feedback when an employee is setting or has reached a specific goal. Provide ongoing instructional feedback when an employee is learning a new skill or taking on a new role or responsibility. You might set up quarterly or even monthly check-ins, or you might choose to make individual feedback part of your project’s post-mortem process.

The point is not to put off giving feedback and not to feel like you have to wait all year to let your team members know how they are doing.

How — With Care

As the old saying goes, “It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.” Tone matters. In addition, it’s important to create an environment and situation that is conducive to a productive conversation. Here are three tips to help get things started off on the right foot:

Avoid Surprises

No one wants to be blindsided with feedback they weren’t expecting. This is another reason why it’s valuable to establish a habit of providing ongoing feedback rather than holding all your comments until the annual review. If you have an ongoing dialog, both you and your employee will know which topics will be on the table when you sit down to talk.

Listen

Though it’s important to prepare your thoughts before any review meeting, it can be very valuable to let your employee speak first. For one thing, each of us is usually our harshest critic. For another thing, giving your employee the chance to speak first will give you an idea of how they perceive their own performance, which will in turn help you understand how to approach delivering your own feedback.

Practice active listening throughout the conversation. Instead of making judgments, getting defensive, or planning out your response to what you hear, listen with the intent of really understanding what the other person is saying. Repeat back what you’ve heard to make sure you’re interpreting it correctly, and don’t be afraid to ask questions if you need clarification.

Invite Feedback

Speaking of asking questions, it’s most effective to think about feedback-related conversations as a two-way street. Invite your employee to collaborate with you by asking follow-up questions, getting their input and even brainstorming solutions. Rather than positioning the conversation as a platform for you to deliver your judgment, position it as an opportunity for the two of you to work on solving some challenges together.

Where — Appropriate Venues

Let the location suit the nature of the feedback. In most cases, it’s okay to share positive feedback pretty much anywhere, including in the presence of other people. Be aware, however, of how your praise of one team member may affect other team members. Also know that some people prefer not to be called out—even in a nice way—publicly.

If you have to deliver negative feedback (or, there’s even a chance that the feedback might be perceived as negative), it’s wisest to hold off on the conversation until you can meet privately with the individual. These conversations are tough enough without an audience.

With What Intention — Encouragement

Good or bad, the point of all feedback is to help someone do a better job in the future. This is why it’s always a good idea to take a future-focused approach by including discussion of new goals and objectives. Even if the feedback included some negative comments, those comments represent opportunities for growth. Use them as a leaping-off point to start a conversation about where your employee wants to go and how they think they can best contribute going forward.

The “SMART” goal-setting framework can be very helpful in these conversations:

S – Specific
M – Measurable
A – Achievable/Attainable
R – Results Oriented/Realistic/Relevant
T – Time-bound

Applying these criteria to a goal will ensure that you’re giving your employee a head start on getting to where they want to be.

What to Do When Things Go Wrong

Sometimes, despite all your preparation, things can fall apart. Though you may have gone in with the best intentions, sometimes the conversation will evoke a negative or defensive response from the person receiving feedback. Fortunately, we’ve already covered many best practices that can help you de-escalate an uncomfortable or contentious situation.

Be Prepared

If you know that you’re going to have to deliver some not-so-great feedback, make sure to have all the relevant facts at hand so that what you’re saying doesn’t come off as a personal attack. For example, if there’s a personnel issue, do your homework about talking to everyone involved before you bring it up with the individual in question.

Listen

As already noted above, good listening skills are key. Make sure you’re not falling into the trap of hearing what you expect to hear. Keep an open mind so you can get an accurate read on what the other person is saying.

Be Empathetic

Understand that even the most professional employee still has emotions. Take the individual’s personality and learning style into consideration. Be aware of what else is going on in their lives that may influence how they respond to certain comments.

Keep Your Cool

No matter what happens, don’t get pulled into responding emotionally yourself. If the conversation gets too heated or reaches an impasse, it’s okay to table the discussion for a bit.

The Mindset that Can Make All The Difference

Ultimately, providing feedback is less about passing judgment and more about helping the people you’re reviewing uncover opportunities to improve their performance so they can more easily achieve their objectives. It may be helpful to think of yourself more as a coach than an evaluator. You’re not doling out gold stars and black marks from on high, you’re working in partnership with your employee to reach a shared goal. The purpose of providing feedback is not so much to praise or punish, but to establish the playing field for what comes next.

So, the next time you need to provide feedback, look at it as a chance to mentor someone. Remember that you and your employee are both on the same team, and you both want the same thing—to do the best job you can so that everyone—the employee, you, and the organization—wins.

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