Guide to Feedback for Managers How not to give feedback to your staff

Giving feedback to your team members can feel stressful and difficult. Here are 10 feedback mistakes to avoid (and by extension, how to do it well).

Giving feedback to your team members may feel stressful and difficult. If you agree, you're not alone: 21% of managers say they avoid giving feedback altogether. But research also shows that staff really value feedback, especially when it’s positive. So here are 10 feedback mistakes to avoid (and by extension, how to do it well).
Feedback done well is empowering. Pic courtesy fauxels on Pexels
Feedback - whether positive or critical - is one of the most powerful tools you have as a manager for developing your staff. Saying well done, or explaining areas where you’d like a team member to improve or develop can go a surprisingly long way to boosting performance and changing behaviours.

But too many managers neglect to give regular feedback, or deliver it in a way that is not helpful. Especially when the feedback is negative or difficult to hear. 

So here are 10 feedback mistakes to avoid, and help your team develop and grow instead.

1. Never give positive feedback

Positive feedback tells your employees that their efforts are appreciated and increases the chance they’ll do more of the good stuff. If your staff member does a good job but you never tell them, they’ll have no idea how they’re doing and may wonder if their work was that important in the first place, which is demotivating.

So catch people doing things right and be really specific about it. For example, say to someone, “that was a really good call. I really appreciate the way that you did X, Y, Z. The questions that you asked really helped them get under the skin of the issues. Nicely done.” 

Give the feedback immediately and be specific. It shows you're paying attention. 

2. Sandwich negative feedback between positives

In case you haven’t heard of a shit sandwich, here’s an example: “Jennie, really good job on that project, excellent work. But I need to tell you something, which is that you smell bad. Nobody wants to work with you. So I'd like you to address that, please. And by the way, good phonecall the other day.”

This may be a bit extreme but the idea of squeezing bad news between two pieces of good news, of getting the recipient into a good space, bringing them down, then bringing them back up again used to be cited as the go-to feedback technique. 

The trouble is dressing negative feedback up like this is totally confusing and bewildering - you're basically ambushing somebody. They'll probably get defensive, or they'll be totally shocked and surprised. And it’s no wonder if they don't understand. Are they doing well, or are they not doing well? 

It's not really humane or considered or thoughtful. So it's not what you should do.

3. Make it about the person

If there is a problem with someone, being specific can be really helpful. But make it about the behaviour, not the person. 

Don’t say: “Jennie you smell.” 
Do say: “Jennie, did you put deodorant on today? Because it's a little ripe in here…”

Don’t say: “Michael, you're a bad person for shouting at your colleague.”
Do say: “Michael, shouting at a colleague is not cool.”

Treat the behaviour, not the person. The behaviour is the problem, not ‘you’re the problem’.

4. Judge someone based on one incident

Judging someone based on one incident or aspect of a behaviour that wasn't that effective at the time doesn’t allow them space to change or grow, and labels them as ‘the problem’.  

Don't do that.

5. Make it an unsafe space

It’s a good idea to signpost that you’re about to give someone difficult feedback, and not try to sneak it in under the covers. But if you say, “there is an issue that I need to talk to you about today, and this is the purpose of the meeting,” understand that this could be immediately triggering for the person, putting them in a fight or flight mode. They might stop listening at that point because they're panicking. 

So you need to create a safe space - take them somewhere private, sit down with a cuppa and listen at least as much as talk. 

6. Think you can deal with it in one meeting

If you're a manager trying to give difficult feedback, bear in mind that if there's a problem with their behaviour, you probably aren't going to deal with it in one meeting. It’s also likely that they were not able to hear it the first time because they were so panicked when you brought it up. So talk to them about it a few times - checking in on how it’s going.

7. Give feedback once a year or even less frequently

Little and often is much better than feedback once a year. If you establish the practice of taking feedback and being critiqued, then people are much more able to hear what's being said, and respond to it in a constructive way. 

8. Don’t mention consequences

Understanding the effect you have on others is a type of emotional intelligence and a desirable skill in the workplace. So help people understand the consequences of their actions, do say: “there were consequences that you may not have considered and may not be aware of. When you shouted at that person, everybody heard it. And everybody was shocked by it, and you probably want to tell me all the reasons why you’re right - I'm not even saying it's entirely your fault. But it happened, it doesn't matter who's to blame. Everybody saw it, and it's had a ripple effect across the organisation.

“So what I need you to think about is what actually happened for you. And what could you do differently in response to that scenario if it happens again?”

9. Criticise people in public

It's good to occasionally praise people in public, it's never good to criticise people in public.  It's humiliating. If you publicly humiliate people, they will hide mistakes in future.

There are other consequences to being humiliated in public: it’s a. devastating and b. it might spin out into other behavioural issues that are driven by anxiety and feeling unsafe. 

Better to have that conversation quietly, where you and they can sort it out and perhaps put in other support so that they can look after it themselves. 

Here’s a real-life example relating to children, but the principle applies:

The other day I was at a scout gathering. We were all standing together in a big circle around the flagpole. Someone announced they’d found a jumper. A small 11-year old girl says, “it’s mine!” and steps forward to get it back.
One of the scout leaders says to her - in a slightly patronising tone it has to be said - “What do we do if we’ve lost property? Drop and give me five…” The little girl gets down and does five press ups in front of everybody, then returns to her place with a beetroot red face. 

You could see the impact it had on her, and a ripple went through the other children - you could see them nervously checking they all had their stuff in case they got called out in public like that.
A colleague of mine looks up the regulations about safeguarding children, and she says to me, “it's written here: no forfeits.” 

So a bit later we call the chap over and explain that it’s not okay to give forfeits such as press-ups to children. 

The chap is mortified. “Oh my God. We've just always done it. We've always done ‘drop and give me five’.” It had never occurred to him that it’s not okay anymore. Also being called out like that, he was a bit appalled at himself and resolved with his co-leaders not to do it again.

He took it really well because it wasn't a criticism of him, it was the behaviour that was wrong.  

10. Don’t set clear expectations

Having clear expectations has been coming up a lot recently in our work with clients. In the scouting example above, we were helped because the safeguarding expectations are published. There are do's and don'ts for a leader working with young people.

Without any judgement, or having to make a big deal of it, it was possible to say that the thing that just happened didn't meet the expectations that are clearly articulated in the guidance. And that's not an opinion. 

In your organisation if there are no clear guidelines or expectations, how can you expect somebody to know what's okay or not? 

Guidelines for feedback on how to create psychological safety at work could be useful. There's a balance to be struck though between being really prescriptive and creating a framework that's flexible. The devil’s in the details. 

Guidelines around behavioural expectations can be good because they can help people, with bullying for example. Eg what is bullying and what is not bullying, what's acceptable and not acceptable? 
  • It's not okay to hit someone,
  • It's not okay to shout. 
  • It's not okay to dress people down in public. 
  • etc

Feedback good practice

So those are all things that we recommend you don't do. Let's end on some positive things you should do. As a manager when you give people feedback, this is good practice:
  • be really specific about the incident 
  • make it about the behaviour, not the person
  • work with them to develop mitigations or alternative strategies for when their situations resume
  • set them up for success
  • make it so they want to come back to you and talk to you about it the next time it happens. If they're still struggling or the strategy didn’t work - work with them on what else you could try. 

360 degree reviews

A 360 degree feedback review can be a useful part of a feedback culture. If you’re looking for good 360 review software that supports the growth of your employees and your organisation, and removes the complicated admin that can accompany 360’s, use a tool like AdviceSheet, so you don't have to do any admin, it is really that simple.