Is All Feedback Good Feedback?

Katie Augsburger Coaching, Culture, Managing People, Performance

Five things you need to ask yourself before you give an employee feedback

Every HR conference and article has been filled with content on the importance of “creating a feedback culture.” We are taught that very little can improve the employee/employer relationship more than timely and honest performance feedback. I think there is a lot of truth in this.

We all need insight about how we are performing to truly grow and get better. But not all feedback is good feedback, and some, quite honestly, is biased, harmful or unthoughtful. So how do you know?

Before you sit your employee down to share your thoughts on their performance, ask yourself these five questions.

  1. Is this the time?
    These are extraordinary stressful times. Even the highest performing employee is likely to have threadbare emotions and is juggling a tremendous amount of personal and professional pressure. Is now really the time to let them know that they shouldn’t wear a t-shirt on Zoom? Be clear what is necessary feedback they an employee needs to know now in order to be successful, and what could potentially add to their burden without actually improving their work.
  2. Is this possible bias?
    So much feedback I have received from leaders in my career is not about the quality of the work, but how I “do” the work, or how I “show up” at work. I have gotten feedback that my voice is too loud, that my appearance was too “girly”, or that I shouldn’t be “too emotional”. I have been told in performance reviews on numerous occasions that I didn’t have “executive polish” (whatever that is). All of this feedback is deeply rooted in the idea that there is one way to speak, look, and present yourself to be successful. When we peel back that feedback, it is often coded for, “you are not the ideal employee type, and we need you to assimilate.”
  3. Is this a time for curiosity instead of feedback?
    What don’t you know about this person and this issue? Is there an opportunity for you to learn more before sharing your feedback or advice? Is the reason this person is often late due to childcare and they may need their hours adjusted? Is the project going south because the client is difficult, not because of a lack of skill? Ask questions and get curious before assuming this is an area of growth for the person.
  4. What is my relationship with this person?
    Have I taken the time to grow a relationship with this person so that they can hear and accept my feedback? If you have not spent time cultivating a relationship, working on building trust, and understanding the person, then giving them feedback on their performance will only weaken the relationship. You must make the investment in your relationship before you can start making emotional withdrawals on the account.
  5. Will this feedback lead to a change that can happen in 10-seconds or 10-years?
    I once heard that you should never give someone advice on their appearance that they cannot change in 10 seconds. Spinach in your teeth? Let them know. Lose 50 lbs? Keep that to yourself and stop being fatphobic. Employee development usually cannot happen in 10 seconds, but you should be clear if this is something that can be quickly improved or something that needs long term coaching and present it accordingly. Does this employee just need a better system for ensuring supplies are ordered timely? Yes, great give that timely and quick feedback. Does your feedback get to the root of a major skill deficit or a behavior that is ongoing and is impacting the quality of their working relationships? That is a longer and more difficult conversation and investment for you both. Be prepared for that and be clear what you are willing to do to see that investment through.

It is not enough to just give someone feedback, we need to get clear as to why we are giving it, and the impact of how and when we share it. We must reckon with our our own biases, sense of urgency or failure to build a relationship before we ever ask someone to change how they show up. Because true workplace success means we create the opportunities to help people grow and ensure we do our own work not to create harm.