effective feedback

“Tell me why you didn’t say anything to Kyle about his performance problems.”

“I didn’t want to hurt his feelings.”

This feedback exchange happened during legal discovery in an unlawful termination lawsuit.  Fed up with an employee’s ongoing failure to meet job requirements, the supervisor had fired him. The employee believed he was fired because he was older than the rest of his department.

If you supervise or manage others, candidly and caringly talking to people about their job performance is a must-have skill in your leadership toolkit.

I remember the first time I had to tell someone their job performance was missing the mark. I had  postponed the discussion probably a dozen times. The time lag only made me more uncomfortable and dashed my secret hopes that the employee could/would read my mind and would miraculously start doing a better job…or gift me with their resignation letter given they’d found a better position.

As the possibility of that miracle receded further and further, I talked to a respected colleague.  He asked me what I was afraid of.

“I’m afraid of hurting his feelings.”

“What will happen if his performance doesn’t get any better?”

“I’ll have to let him go.”

“What about his feelings then?”


My colleague went on to tell me that really good leaders talk frankly and frequently about performance with their employees. That those discussions come from a place of caring, not a place of belittlement or forced obligation (the form is due to HR stuff).

I jumped off the cliff and spoke candidly and compassionately with my employee. We talked about what he did well and what he did poorly. We explored things he needed to do better to improve his performance. There weren’t any threats or demands.

Giving honest feedback

As a leader, you own developing your people just you own production or sales numbers or whatever other metric is used as the yardstick to assess your work output.  To make that happen:

Give your employees regular, ongoing coaching and feedback about how they’re doing because their insights, growth and performance evolve over time.

Be really specific in describing in good work and what needs to improve. Give feedback (high fives and otherwise) often so it becomes a normal practice for you to do and for your team to receive and respond. Build a culture in which your employees give feedback to each other as well. There’s nothing that says that feedback can only come from the boss!

Some examples:

  • You need to be nicer to customers isn’t descriptive enough and is open to lots of interpretation. Say instead, Smile and make eye contact when you greet customers. Use a friendly tone of voice and ask how you can help them. That feedback paints a much clearer picture of what performance you expect.
  • Saying Good job! is good recognition yet it doesn’t give enough specificity to help develop particular skills and/or behaviors.  Great job on that presentation to the boss! You had all your facts, had analyzed them well, had anticipated her objections and was able to deflect her pushback with appropriate humor…well done! See the difference?

As for that employee who was my first “feedback guinea pig,” he thanked me for being upfront with him and went on to become a star performer.

What other tips and techniques have you experienced that worked well for you in giving honest and meaningful feedback?