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by Mike Smith | March 10, 2009


Documentation is a tool for remembering significant performance and is essentially "silent feedback." It cannot produce behavioral change until the manager talks with the employee about the performance and works with the individual to improve or sustain the performance. Feedback can effectively motivate change by providing a reward for good work, the impetus to use a new procedure, or an incentive to stop unwanted behavior.

Feedback is a critical part of the performance review process. Thomas Gilbert cites improper feedback as his second "contributor to incompetence." Feedback is a way of helping employees consider changing their behavior. It lets people know whether their behavior is having the effect they intend.

Feedback provides benefits to both managers and employees. From a manager's perspective, it helps maintain or improve current employee performance. For employees, effective feedback answers the often unspoken question, "How am I doing?"

There are two general types of feedback:

  • Maintenance ("keep up the good work") - recognizes good work, general competence, or exemplary performance.
  • Improvement ("change is needed") - calls attention to poor work, areas of incompetence, or problem behavior.

All "official" documentation (e.g., comments written on appraisal forms) should be shared with the employee. But not all feedback needs to be this formal, nor does it ever have to be written down. If a manager has a choice between "writing someone up" and talking to the person about performance, talking is the better approach (at least the first time; repeat problems should be "written up").~Ongoing Feedback

Ongoing feedback is nothing more than performance-related discussions that convey "How are you doing?" information to the employee.

It is not appropriate to save up feedback and dump it all on the employee once or twice a year. Done this way, the motivating and relationship building influence of feedback is lost. Employees can't improve if they don't know a problem exists. It is also hard to build a trusting relationship when the only performance related communication is negative.

Ongoing feedback is an essential management tool. Many managers are products of an environment where they were told "no news is good news" or "I'll tell you if you do anything wrong". They need to learn that today it's important to build a more effective environment by giving ongoing feedback to employees.

To be effective, feedback must be ongoing. But above all, it must be heard, accepted, and used.


  1. Feedback is most useful when it is specific and descriptive, not evaluative

    Effective feedback describes specifically what the person did, rather than making a judgment or broad generalization. For example, telling a employee he is "bad mannered" may be an accurate statement. But it is inadequate feedback; the employee doesn't know what to change. A better way to convey the information would be, "You have interrupted three people in the last half hour."~

  2. Effective feedback is aimed at behavior under the employee's control

    Aren't all actions people take under their control? Yes, but some aspects of behavior are very difficult, and perhaps impossible, for a person to change. Physical or personality characteristics are a good example. Most people will welcome, or at least be willing to listen to, feedback about writing style, presentation skills, etc.

  3. Effective feedback is well-timed

    The effectiveness of feedback is enhanced when it is given close in time to the actual behavior. Receiving feedback about last month's behavior is like getting an insurance cancellation notice after having an accident. Feedback should be delayed only when necessary - to avoid embarrassing an employee in front of others or to get more information.

  4. Effective feedback is constructive

    Constructive feedback is not constructive criticism. The manager should be seen as helpful, not as attacking. Typically, when people criticize others, it is done in a "put down" manner. It's best to avoid labels or evaluations of behavior when giving negative feedback.

    Constructive feedback shows the employee how performance could have been better. The manager describes "what happened" versus "what should have happened" and then explains how it could have been done differently.

  5. Effective feedback is appropriate to employees' needs

    Too often managers treat all employees alike in terms of frequency and content of feedback. But employees have varying needs and desires for feedback. To be effective, managers need to adjust the timing and content of their feedback to match the particular situation and the needs/preferences of the employee involved.~Some employees won't "hear" negative feedback unless it is repeated frequently and is exaggerated. Others remember every negative thing that's ever been said to them, whether it was intended as negative feedback or not. Some employees prefer to receive frequent feedback. Usually, high performers want a lot of feedback and ask for it directly. Other employees would prefer that the manager gave no feedback.

Potential Pitfalls

Managers may avoid giving feedback for any of the following reasons:

  • They don't believe feedback is useful or necessary; "No news is good news, was enough for me."
  • They believe they are not competent to judge others.
  • They anticipate a negative reaction by the employee.
  • They don't often give positive feedback.

Employees may avoid opportunities for feedback or not listen to and accept feedback for these reasons:

  • They don't trust the manager's motivation.
  • The feedback is not clear.
  • They don't respect the manager's judgment.
  • The feedback doesn't agree with the employee's opinion.
~Accentuate the Positive?

Giving and receiving negative feedback is almost always difficult. Many employees remember negative feedback longer and more clearly than positive feedback. This happens most often in organizations where ongoing feedback is not practiced. When performance discussions occur frequently and these discussions are generally positive, employees are more likely to listen and more likely to "hear" both positive and negative feedback. Perhaps the best advice is, "Be free with both positive and negative feedback about performance." Managers should confront all situations requiring negative feedback and should be sure employees are given every opportunity to improve. In most cases, employees' overall performance is generally satisfactory. Ensuring that the preponderance of feedback is positive will help managers get through to employees when negative feedback is required.

The timing and content of feedback should vary based on the significance of the employee's performance. Feedback should be like radio and television commercials, which are intentionally louder to capture audience attention. Whenever managers observe extremes of performance (positive or negative), employees need to realize how far from expected performance they are. And they should be appropriately commended or encouraged to improve performance.


Filed Under: Workplace Issues

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