Can Feedback be Effective?

Have you ever given someone feedback and it went poorly? Whether on your end or theirs?

Feedback, though highly necessary for improvement in any area of life, can be difficult to give and to receive, especially in a workplace setting. And often, it can be extremely subjective, making it difficult for people to decide whether or not to apply the feedback. A Harvard Business Review article says, “The first problem with feedback is that humans are unreliable raters of other humans.”[i] Yet feedback is essential to a business that wants to succeed and grow.

So how do you provide feedback in a way that encourages and empowers employees to grow rather than hindering what they’re already successful at?

Here are a few tricks we’ve learned along the way that will make this difficult task a little easier for everyone involved.

  1. Set Expectations from the Beginning

Setting up expectations about goals and norms from the beginning, whether it’s a task, project or simply their role, allows you to have something to measure against. If people don’t know what they’re supposed to be doing, they have no way to measure their own work against what’s expected.

Likewise, if you don’t know what to expect of everyone else, you can’t tell if others are doing the work required of them. Expectations give everyone something to work toward and allow everyone to measure their work against something everyone agrees on.

Think of it like a SMART goal:

  • Is the task or project specific?
  • Is it measurable? Do they know what success looks like?
  • Is what you’re asking them to do achievable?
  • Is the task or project relevant to their role? Or to the success of the company?
  • Is it time bound? Meaning did you set a deadline?

Then, when you need to provide feedback, good or bad, allow these set expectations to guide the conversation. Focus on the employee’s actions according to the expectations they agreed to rather than focusing on the employee as a person.

For example, if an employee fails to meet deadlines, you can talk to the employee about the expectation to meet deadlines and then find out why they’re struggling to meet the expectation. This allows you to focus on something specific the employee can change and puts you on the same team rather than putting you against the employee.

  1. Create Opportunities for Regular Check-ins

If employees know to expect feedback at certain points, they’ll be more receptive to the feedback. This can also be flexible. If you see that everything is running smoothly, it’s easier to just cancel the meeting than it is to start scheduling meetings. Meetings that are brought up later tend to make employees start worrying about getting in trouble or start getting defensive, which both undermine their ability to receive the feedback.[ii]

These opportunities for feedback don’t have to be at a certain time or pace; do what’s best for you and your team. This could mean doing it weekly or monthly or any other time frame that works for you and your team as long as it’s regular and predictable.

  1. Foster Relationships

If a random person in the store came up to you and told you your breath stank, how would you feel? How about if it was a close friend who told you?

When you trust people more, you’re more likely to accept and apply their feedback. The same goes for your employees; the more they trust you, the more they’ll trust your feedback, and building your relationship with them will foster that trust.

Some ways you can build professional relationships with your employees include:

  • Avoiding gossip
  • Listening to them
  • Staying positive
  1. Focus on What You Observe

By focusing on observations rather than feelings, you can take the emotion out of the feedback. This can also give employees the chance to share their perspective and show the other side of the issue, which in turn allows you both to come up with a reasonable solution that you both can be happy about.

For example, if you see an employee missing their deadlines more often, you might start out the conversation with, “I’ve noticed you’ve been struggling to meet deadlines lately.” From there, you can ask the employee why this is.

Setting the conversation up with the observation and questioning it allows the employee to explain what’s happening on their end, such as:

  • Lacking understanding of how to achieve the goal
  • Having too much on their plate
  • Being distracted by personal issues

From there, you can work with the employee to address the true issue rather than just berating the employee for falling short without giving any clear way of getting better.

  1. Make the Feedback Clear and Actionable

One way you can do this is by using a three-pronged approach:

  1. Describe the behavior (good or bad)
  2. Link it to impact
  3. Identify a next step[iii]

Doing this allows you to get straight to the point with the feedback while giving employees something clear they can do to change, or to keep the good behavior. Then, you also have something clear you and the employee can both use to measure the success of the change or retention.

For example, if an employee came late to work every day for a week, you might say something like the following:

“I noticed you’ve come in late several days this week. Because of this, you’ve missed out on several opportunities to discuss your projects with the team and learn from everyone’s expertise. What can we do to make sure you’re getting here on time every day?”

This shows the employee exactly what they need to improve while giving them examples of how their behavior affects their work and allowing them to find ways of improving.


Giving feedback can be tough, but you can do it in a way that encourages you and your employees to get better every day. As you learn to give it more effectively, your employees will come to appreciate the feedback, and your office will quickly become a place of learning and of growth, for employees and the business.