How To Effectively Give And Receive Employee Feedback

/ real-life wins
Jack Delaney

Feedback can feel like a gift and a curse. There’s nothing like positive feedback to boost your morale, put an extra spring in your step and make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside.

Yet no matter how many times you receive it—or how valid it may be—negative feedback always makes you want to head outside, dig a hole and bury yourself deep, deep in the earth.

The thing is, both forms are equally important, especially in the business world. Feedback is one of the most important tools you can harness to boost employee performance, improve processes and build a stronger, more efficient workplace.

In this post we’ll share how you can give (and receive) feedback in the best way possible, so you can keep your relationships healthy and productive, and level up your communication skills.

What Is Effective Employee Feedback?

If we had to define effective employee feedback we would say it’s:

Constructive information shared between employees about their skills, work performance or their ability to collaborate with a team.

It can be positive (”hey you’re doing something great”), or negative (”hey you’re doing something not so great”). Both are equally important, one’s just more difficult to dish out than the other.

benefits of employee feedback infographic white background

But there’s a bit more to it than that. To understand what effective feedback is it's best to look at an example of when it’s not done well.

So let’s say your designer is working on a new website design for your business. They spend a few days coming up with ideas. You wait a week, take a look at what they’ve produced and send back an email saying, “I don’t like it, do better.”

This example ticks just about everything on the bad feedback checklist. It's vague, too slow, condescending and sounds like the person giving it thinks they live on a throne above the rest of us mere mortals.

Yet situations like that are super common (just ask your artistic friends). So let’s take a look at the best practices so you can avoid making the same mistakes.

Strategies For Giving Effective Employee Feedback

The more specific the better

The best feedback is crystal clear and laser-focused. After hearing your feedback the person on the receiving end of it should be able to immediately act on what you have raised.

When handing it out you want it to be two things above all else:

  • Specific
  • Actionable

Employees should never have to guess or extrapolate from what you’ve said. Be nice and precise with your concerns (or praise) and avoid ambiguous statements, and try your best not to give instructions that are vague.

Whenever possible, give specific examples, particularly with critical feedback. Here’s a quick example:

Vague, non-specific Specific-actionable feedback
“I don’t really like the design. Yeah, I don’t know. There’s just something about it that doesn’t work for me.” “I don’t like that shade of pink. I would prefer a darker shade and a font that was sans-serif.”

See the difference? The first example gives the designer nothing to work off. They have to go away and guess what you meant with your ‘feedback’. The second gives specific, actionable steps they can take to make adjustments.

Plus when you are specific you are pushing your employees towards a solution, which is the ultimate goal for any kind of feedback. When you’re vague it just sounds more like you’re complaining (which doesn’t help anyone).

A good trick to keep in mind is to avoid comparative adjectives. These are simple terms like bigger, better, stronger and nicer—they might sound great in pop songs, but they won’t do your employees any favours.

Make sure it’s timely

We all have a tendency to hold on to our thoughts. Sometimes other work gets in the way, and other times we just can’t be bothered to take the time out of our busy days.

It’s natural to procrastinate, especially if you’re dreading having to confront someone about what a horrible job they’re doing. But no matter what type of feedback you’re giving, the longer you wait the less effective it will be.

Usually this procrastination takes two forms:

  1. You have positive feedback for someone and over time you completely forget about it and never tell them.
  2. You have negative feedback for someone and over time it builds up inside you until you unleash it in a fit of rage.
When you hold back positive feedback you miss out on a vital chance to give an employee a pat on the back. Do this too often and it’ll lead to employees that feel undervalued and over time to a steep drop in staff morale.

We would never suggest giving negative feedback over email or text, but if you find yourself struggling to give positive feedback in a timely fashion, written communication is a fine alternative— just don’t rely on it as your sole method.

When to give feedback infographic on white background

Shooting someone a quick message on Slack or via email is quick, efficient and often enough to get the message across. It can also happen in little ways, like in a comment on Google Sheets or a Trello board.

Our team does this all the time, but we also make sure it’s the exception rather than the rule. It’s important not to rely purely on these detached forms of communication and sprinkle in verbal, face-to-face feedback too.

An example: Your content writer posts a really engaging new post to your blog. You read it and think it’s the best thing since sliced bread. You could send them a message to tell them what you liked about it, then give it a mention at the next team meeting.

When you hold back on negative feedback you can turn minor issues into major ones. It’s like when a snowball rolls down a hill and becomes an avalanche. All of a sudden you’ll find yourself screaming at your employee three months down the track because they used the wrong version of “their”.

Plus, people get (rightfully) defensive if you bring up problems that stretch back weeks, months or years. Not to mention that by holding onto your feedback you’ve denied them an opportunity to make improvements the entire time.

It’s best to just get it over and done with. Take the leap, face the music, rip off the Band-Aid. That way the feedback is more fresh in your mind and changes can be made in real-time.

Remember You’re On The Same Team

Most managers (or other employees) hand out feedback in two ways. One is the wrong way and one is the right one. They go something like this:

Version AYour manager calls you into a lifeless, minimalist office that Marie Kondo would toss out because it sparks zero joy. They give you a stern look from across their desk, clear their throat and get started.

They act as if they’re Odin, the all-knowing, all-seeing god who is the sole judge of right and wrong; good and bad. They have a holier-than-thou attitude, and are patronising and rude.

Version B—Your manager or coworker organizes a meeting in person or via video call. When you get together they’re casual and straight to the point—they address the issue, but they do so in a supportive way without making it a personal attack.

It’s about finding a solution, not raking you over the coals. They don’t sugarcoat things, because that’s equally unhelpful. They approach feedback as if you are equals (which you are) and they want to work together to help you fix it.

It doesn’t take Einstein to realise that Version B is the best way to go. Feedback should never be a personal attack—it’s about helping an individual improve and should always be approached with that in mind.

Don't sugarcoat it

Some companies adopt a strategy called 'sandwich' feedback. Unfortunately it doesn’t have anything to do with delicious sandwiches (that might actually make it better.)

The idea goes that when you give someone negative feedback you should 'sandwich' it with two instances of positive feedback. This is meant to make constructive criticism easier to take.

sandwich approach graphic

We’re just going to come out and say it: this is the worst strategy ever. The intention is right, but the end result just feels condescending and super contrived. Most folks see what you’re doing from a mile away too.

We aren't the only ones. Studies have found the sandwich procedure is ineffective for a number of reasons. In an article published in the Journal of Behavioral Studies in Business, researchers found:

  • It obscures the message and dilutes the main points
  • Over time employees start anticipating the negative "middle"
  • Employees quickly learn that the real reason behind the positive feedback is to give them a reproach of some sort
  • Positive feedback is given less value
  • It's difficult for employees to get an idea of how they are actually performing

We recommend you use a crazy approach called honesty. People can handle the  truth, and it’s much more effective. There’s only one small caveat: your employees need to know it’s coming from a place of care. That you aren’t attacking them as a person, you’re just addressing a certain issue.

That’s why it’s integral to foster a supportive workplace where people are encouraged to be open with each other (we'll get to that later). That way employees can challenge and critique each other without a breakdown of relationships or team morale.

So give it to them straight! As long as you have their best interests at heart and aren’t using feedback as an excuse to yell at the girl who doesn’t clean the microwave after she uses it, you’ll be fine.

Be aware of who has the power⚡️

This may sound like a strange one, but it’s probably the most important tip on the list. Our world runs on all sorts of hidden power structures, like tiny spider webs running through every kind of organization no matter the size.

You should be hyper aware of the structure within your workplace. Consider your role and the position of the person you are having a feedback conversation with. Are they “above” or “below” you on the hierarchy? Are you on a level playing field?

You’ll probably give feedback to your mate of ten years a bit differently to how you give it to a new employee. That’s okay. But it’s important to keep in mind the way what you say, and how you say it, can affect people differently.

Whereas your mate might just take your feedback on the chin, the new employee may take it to heart and worry about the stability of their job. These imbalances aren't just reserved for roles—it could be based on race, identity, or gender.

Just approach each interaction with empathy, treat everyone as a human being and things will be fine. Except if you have a company pet. Don't treat them like a human. That would be weird.

Strategies To Effectively Receive (And Act On) Feedback

So what about when the shoe is on the other foot? It’s all fun and games when you’re the one dishing feedback out, but when the tables are turned things can be a bit more difficult.

You don’t exactly need tips to receive positive feedback—that part’s easy. Just sit back and bask in the beauty of affirmation. But how do you take negative feedback on board without dismissing it or resenting the person who gave it to you?

We’ve got a few strategies that you can use to become a better employee and, if you’re lucky, maybe even a better person.

Don’t Get Your Back Up

No matter how your colleague approaches you—with a bright smile or a grimace—when you hear someone has feedback for you, your first reaction will probably be to get on the defensive.

It’s a natural response when you feel you’re getting attacked. A few millennia ago you might have growled, grabbed a spear and gotten ready for battle. That’s not really a choice in the modern day office though. So what do you do?

The first thing you should do is acknowledge your feelings. Take some time to compose yourself and let things settle. Usually in these situations our immediate response is to get emotional, but try not to lash out with the first thing that pops into your head (it's usually waaaaay too brutal).

Swallow your pride and listen to what they have to say. It might be rubbish, or they may be spot on with their assessment. But you’ll never know if you’re just stewing about how furious you are.

tips for receiving feedback in green box

Say Thanks

As the old saying goes, it’s the thought that counts. The reality is that 99% of the time when someone gives you feedback, unless they’re Cruella De Ville or something, they have the best intentions at heart.

Whether you agree with what they’ve said or think they’re utterly delusional, just thank them for the effort. It reflects well on you and keeps the relationship with colleagues on the straight and narrow.

Ideally you’ll actually be grateful for their feedback. It’s not just important, it’s integral to your growth both as a person and a professional. So try to be open to it and thankful for the opportunity it allows you to assess yourself and your performance.

That doesn’t mean you have to blindly accept every little piece of feedback you get. A lot of the time it will be misguided, or just plain wrong. But every so often they’ll be right. And thanking your colleague is a step in the right direction to accepting that fact.

A quick note: if you’re a manager or someone of high status within a company, it can be tough for folks ‘beneath’ you to give you feedback. If you find yourself in that situation, try to give them a bit extra encouragement and thanks for their bravado.

Follow Up

When someone gives you constructive feedback don’t just let it go in one ear and out the other. Take the notes—regardless of how valid you think they are, and consider what’s been said.

Do they have a point? Is there at least one idea you can take from it? We promise that there is always something to learn. It might be that you’re in the wrong, that you’re a genius, or that you and your coworker have completely different work philosophies.

Once you’ve done some soul-searching, you can follow up with team members you trust to see if other folks agree with the feedback. If most folks do then it might help come to terms with the fact you’ve got some changes to make.

You should also catch up with whoever gave you feedback in the weeks afterwards. It could be informally over Slack or at the next team meeting. And it doesn’t have to be a rousing speech— just a few words of acknowledgement go a long way.

By following up you let the person know you appreciated their insight, that you've taken their advice on board and that you’re open to making adjustments for the benefit of yourself and the wider workplace.

The Importance Of An Open Company Culture

Whether or not a company encourages feedback has a massive impact on how willing employees are to give and receive it. There's nothing worse than a company who only asks for feedback in an employee exit interview.

You should be trying to establish a strong feedback culture in your workplace from day dot. But this isn’t just something that happens overnight.

With a bit of hard work you can build a workplace culture where regular feedback is as natural as putting on your undies in the morning (usually we would say pants, but with so much remote work going on, we know you don't always do that, do you?)

Here are few  tips to help implement feedback in your workplace.

Provide feedback training

Giving and receiving feedback are skills, like kicking a soccer ball or using a graphic design tool. To make sure every employee feels comfortable with the process, consider providing training and educational resources.

It can be as simple as letting employees know that feedback is part and parcel of life at your company. Explain that it’s a tool for personal and professional improvement, and it is for the betterment of the whole team.

Show off a few employee feedback examples and, boom! You’re done. To make things easy, you could even make it a part of your onboarding process. That way everyone is on the same page from day one—from your first employee to your last.

Lead by example

Employees love it when leaders get their hands dirty, and model strong behaviours. It’s no different with feedback. A surefire way to get your employees to adopt it is by doing it yourself—and encouraging other leaders to do it too.

quote on blue backgroundSource 

You can promote employee recognition, call out negative behaviors you see around the office (or virtual workspace) and hand out positive and negative feedback. But the single most effective thing leaders can do is to ask for it.

By showing you aren’t perfect and willing to take feedback you set an example for your employees to follow. Employee engagement will skyrocket and before you know it the entire team will be handing out feedback left, right and centre.

Make it a habit

Everything is made easier when it becomes a habit. That goes for brushing your teeth, going to the gym, or giving feedback. So try to make feedback a part of your everyday operations.

As James Clear says in Atomic Habits, “The task of breaking a bad habit is like uprooting a powerful oak within us. And the task of building a good habit is like cultivating a delicate flower one day at a time.”

Take Paperform for example. Feedback is an important part of our team culture, but because we are a remote team we can’t exactly share our thoughts at the water cooler. Instead, we share informal feedback on an ongoing basis.

Slack conversation feedback example

Any time we see an opportunity for positive or negative feedback we take it. Right then and there. Just like Vlad did above, in response to a query about a blog post. After you do it for a while it becomes so natural you don’t even think about it, which is exactly the way you want the process to feel.

Part of this is setting clear expectations around feedback. At Paperform we know that everyone is free to give feedback to each other, almost any time of day (within reason), with the goal of improving as individuals and a company.

Keep It Varied

Some companies trying to institute a feedback culture take things too seriously. They try to implement all kinds of metrics and direct reports to measure attitudes and end up making the process feel scary and insincere.

For example, if you need to give someone feedback about a word they misspelled in a blog post, there’s no need for a face-to-face meeting—a Slack message or quick email will do the job perfectly. And

Official processes are important to have for when the time comes, but employees should feel empowered to approach feedback as they see fit. Here’s a few different avenues of feedback you might choose:

  • Casual check-ins
  • An official performance review process
  • Written
  • face-to-face
  • Individual
  • Group
  • Anonymous
  • Attributed
  • Employee surveys

People prefer to give feedback in different ways, and just about every situation calls for a certain form of communication. By opening up forms of feedback for people to choose from you show that you trust employees to express themselves how they feel is best.

Over To You

Well, in the words of Forrest Gump, “That’s all we’ve got to say about that”. Now there’s just one thing left to do—go put what you’ve learned to practice.

If you approach it with an open mind, a positive outlook and an authentic desire for self-improvement, you’ll be blown away with the benefits a healthy feedback culture brings both individually and for your business.

Why not dip your toes into the waters with a feedback survey from Paperform? It gives you a quick way to get feedback from customers or employees and start getting actionable insights today.

Try our 14-day free trial today—no credit card required.

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