Giving constructive feedback to employees may seem like one of your most difficult tasks as a manager. Just thinking about it can conjure up images of emotional breakdowns and inflamed tempers. It doesn’t have to be this way. If you learn to give constructive feedback effectively, you can avoid the drama and instead have an insightful conversation with your employee about their performance, and how they can improve it.


Why should I be giving constructive feedback?


While you may feel uncomfortable giving candid feedback, studies show that that’s exactly what the majority of your employees want. A 2014 assessment of employee attitudes towards “positive” and “corrective” feedback by Zenger/Folkman revealed that 57% of respondents preferred receiving corrective to positive feedback. When given properly, 92% believed “negative” feedback was effective in improving performance. Interestingly, those who favored constructive feedback also rated their managers highest for being honest and straightforward in their reviews. What can be taken away from these statistics is the fact that most employees want to know what they can be doing to improve their performance. Waiting for an annual review to give constructive feedback risks bringing their professional development to a snail’s pace.

A common mistake managers often make is to focus constructive feedback on employees who need the most improvement. Failing to provide your top performers with feedback can actually jeopardize your retention rates. Your top performers may become frustrated if they feel they’re not getting advice on how to improve and develop further. Replacing high-level performers can cost your company 400% of their annual salary. If you don’t invest time into helping your top employees hone and broaden their skills, you might lose them to other opportunities that will better test their abilities.

What's more, failing to respond promptly to behavioral issues can lead to greater impacts within your team. For example, if an employee has a tendency to lose their temper in group discussions, failing to address the situation may cause tensions between your employees to boil over by the time performance reviews come around, causing long term effects. Pointing out destructive behaviors to your employees will help them to realize the impact they’re having on the workplace and encourage them to make changes. Listening will help you to better understand the situation and any deeper issues which need to be resolved.

As a manager you’re responsible for ensuring that your employees are on the same track working towards a common goal. When there is little communication between you and your employees, they may drift off in different directions, prioritizing different objectives. Constructive feedback helps you to guide your team members in the same direction and clearly communicate what they should be working towards. Guidance and clear objectives will enable your team members to streamline and coordinate their efforts bringing everyone forward. If you avoid giving candid feedback to your employees, ultimately it will be harmful not only to the individual, but to the team as a whole.


How to give constructive feedback


Though it may feel easier to give constructive feedback through 360 and performance reviews, there are three reasons why it’s important to balance this with one-on-ones. Taking time to schedule a more informal face-to-face meeting shows you really care about your employee’s professional development. It enables you to confirm they understand and that feedback has been received well. Finally, it gives you a chance to hear from them (a conversation rather than just an anonymous or top-down review) and come up with effective next steps together. For further advice on how managers can follow up with employees after a 360 review see our blog.

You may still have some employees who view feedback with a fixed mindset. It’s essential that you handle their reviews carefully and watch for signs that they may be putting up barriers to your advice. The more you get into the habit of giving feedback, the easier it will become for them to transition their way of thinking. Nonetheless, whether your employee has a fixed or a growth mindset, it’s crucial that you take the appropriate steps to avoid confusion and make sure your comments are received well.


Steps to giving constructive feedback effectively:


Scheduling a one-on-one feedback session

The first thing you should consider is location. Whether in your office, an empty meeting room or a coffee shop, the best way to give feedback is one-on-one. If you give your employee constructive criticism in front of others it can undermine their confidence and put them on the defensive. When asking your employee to meet with you, be sure to frame it in a way that doesn’t cause them to become nervous. In most employees’ minds, being asked to meet in private with their manager could flare warning signs about what’s to come, shedding a negative light on the conversation before it even starts.

Instead of saying, “can you come to my office so we can discuss your performance”, ask if you can catch up later to discuss their progress. Keeping your request informal and positive will make sure they feel more relaxed about the prospect of meeting up with you one-on-one. Read further on how to lead effective one-on-ones.


Tone and Delivery

Using the correct tone and delivery is the most important step to giving effective feedback. Keep in mind the following guidelines:


Start positive  

Balance your constructive feedback by leading the conversation with something they’re doing well. This will give them an example of what you’re expectations are and boost their confidence. Make it clear you want to help them continue performing and developing these types of skills. Avoid using words like “but”, “however” and “although” to link your positive and constructive feedback. Saying, “I like the way you communicate with others but…” will signal to them that your positive feedback may not be sincere.


Be clear and specific

It’s important to clearly explain why this is hurting their performance. The best way to do this is to provide actionable feedback and specific examples. Saying, “you need to close more sales,” won’t give your employee enough information. If instead you say, “I’ve noticed that when speaking with customers you sometimes miss the opportunity to tell them about…” This statement encourages them to recall their past conversations with customers and think about what actions they could take to change their performance.


Frame your feedback using a growth mindset

Remember that the difference between a fixed and a growth mindset is that people with a fixed mindset see their abilities as static so feedback can often be seen as a personal attack. Framing your feedback in a way that focuses on behavior rather than traits emphasizes that you are drawing their attention to certain areas because you believe it will help them improve their performance. The safest way to avoid this is to make statements based on facts and observations.


Don’t overdo it

Though you may see several areas your employee needs to work on, overloading them with feedback could overwhelm them. Avoid confusion by focusing on improving one or two areas at a time. Wondering what you should target first? Chief Revenue Officer at Hubspot, Mark Roberge, suggests using what he calls metrics-driven sales coaching. This method evolved from his experience taking golf lessons. Most golf instructors would tell him to turn his grip, change his stance, shift his weight and turn his wrist to improve his swing. This became confusing and didn’t lead to any improvement. Instead, one instructor had him turn his grip and practice his swing one hundred times. Then he continued to add and practice one new skill at a time until he finally saw results. Analyzing metrics of your employee’s performance will help you decide which skill to work on first.


Find a solution together

Give your employees a chance to respond to your comments so you can see it from their perspective and properly address the situation. Remember your job is to give them perspective on their actions. For example, maybe one of their co-workers complained that they’re irritable and difficult to work with because they raise their voice during team meetings. The employee in question may explain that this is simply the way they speak when under stress. This not only gives them a chance to respond, but also to process your feedback.

Once you’ve gathered the facts create a plan together. Give suggestions of ways they could adjust their performance and ask what steps they think they could take. This is also a good way to make sure they understood and will take steps to change their behavior.

Ask for advice on how you as their manager can help them to achieve this goal. This will reinforce your willingness to help them and demonstrate your receptiveness to receiving feedback yourself. You can also suggest finding an external mentor who may have a more neutral perspective.


Follow up by recognizing achievements

One question managers often struggle with is how to follow up without feeling like you’re micromanaging. If you confirmed your employee understood your feedback during the meeting, and you created some clear goals and objectives together, you should be able to step back and let them implement these changes. The best way to show them they’re on the right track is to follow up by recognizing when they’ve implemented changes effectively with positive feedback and encouragement.


Summary and take-aways:


Giving constructive feedback to your employees is an essential part of your job. Though you may be hesitant to point out areas in need of improvement, more employees are actually looking for this kind of advice to help them develop and hone their professional skills. Learning how to give constructive feedback effectively will furthermore help you address tensions in the workplace, provide guidance and improve employee retention rates.


  • Give one-on-one feedback
  • Start positive
  • Be clear and give examples
  • Use a growth mindset
  • Phrase feedback in a constructive way
  • Limit feedback to one or two areas at a time
  • Find a solution together
  • Follow up by recognize achievements in their progress