How To Give Feedback Your Team Can Actually Use

Your team can’t deliver great work if they don’t actually know what you consider great.

By Caroline Zaayer Kaufman, Monster contributor

Originally published in

All employees know that receiving feedback from their supervisors is necessary in order to succeed on the job. Problem is, not every manager is good at giving feedback that can actually help an employee improve.

If your employees walk away from their performance reviews with a quizzical look on their faces and a vague notion of whether they’ve been doing a good job, well, that’s some feedback for you.

Being able to deliver effective, actionable feedback is an important skill to cultivate as a leader, one that helps boost both your team’s performance, as well as your own standing in your company.

“Leaders are genuinely more trusted when they give good feedback,” says Mark Murphy, founder of Leadership IQ, a leadership training and research firm in Atlanta, “and employees who say they get good feedback think more highly of their leaders.”

These tips can help you get better at giving feedback so your team can get better at doing their jobs.

Highlight good work when you see it

“Feedback” isn’t a synonym for “complaint,” and it shouldn’t be reserved solely for pointing out mistakes. You have to show your team you appreciate a job well done by regularly calling out the good work they do.

When an employee does something exceptional, it can be used as a teaching moment, Murphy says. When pointing out excellent work, make it clear which behaviors you want to see repeated. For example, you could say, “Jane put together a great set of instructions explaining our new registration process. Everyone should use this to explain it to our clients.”

This not only builds morale and motivation, it also helps reinforce expectations across the whole team.

Deliver feedback on the spot

Don’t wait for annual or semi-annual performance reviews to tell your employees how they’re doing. Whether people are exceeding your expectations or are missing the mark let your team know how you feel in the moment. If they’re doing good work, there’s no sense in withholding your praise; if they’re not up to par, they still have time to change course while your feedback is fresh in their memory.

“Who wants to hear that they have been making the same mistake over and over again?” says Madeleine Homan Blanchard, co-founder and director of coaching services at The Ken Blanchard Cos. in San Diego. “Tell me right after I made it so I can do better as I move forward.”

In the instance of unfavorable feedback, this strategy also helps prevent a pile-on. Instead of saving up a laundry list of complaints and suggestions, which can overwhelm even the most seasoned of employees, share them one at a time, Murphy says. This takes the pressure off both you and your team member.

Be specific

Your team can’t deliver great work if they don’t actually know what you consider great—so tell them.

“Describe the behavior you want to see—not the outcome, but the actual behavior itself,” says Dr. Josh Kuehler, analytics manager at FMG Leading, a San Diego-based company that helps firms develop human capital strategies and workplace culture.

For example, instead of saying, “You need to speak up more in meetings,” say, “In the marketing meeting this morning, you could have shared your idea about social media with the group,” Homan Blanchard says.

“Don’t assume that anyone knows what you mean,” she adds. “You have to be explicit, especially with all of the cultural and generational differences in the workplace.”

Provide context for your requests

"It’s not enough to tell people how to do something; you also need to explain why something should be done because employees need to understand how their work fits into the bigger picture. So when you share feedback about someone’s behavior, connect it to the broader impact on the project, team or organization", Kuehler says.

“It makes them feel like they’re a part of something more significant. It may feel like it doesn’t matter much if you’re the only one getting impacted,” Murphy says. “When you see how it’s tied to others, to customers, to co-workers, it’s a motivating phenomenon.”

For example, simply telling someone he needs to arrive on time isn’t as effective as saying, “When you’re late, the rest of the team falls behind waiting for you and clients don’t receive the service they need on time.”

Outline a path for improvement

To be a good leader, you need to be a good teacher, and that includes not making assumptions about why people are falling short of your expectations. Work with them to get to the root cause of the issue, and develop a plan to address it.  

“Employees are terrified of asking for help and appearing stupid or incompetent,” Homan Blanchard says, “and until you have evidence that your employee knows exactly how things need to be done, you can’t assume they know.”

Remind your team members that you want them to be successful in their positions; then help them come up with actionable plans to improve, Homan Blanchard says. She recommends breaking the plan into manageable parts so employees can demonstrate that they understand as they achieve each step.