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Leaders: Don’t Make These 9 Mistakes When Giving Feedback

In the world of effective leadership, few skills are as vital as providing feedback. Yet, all too often, even the most well-intentioned leaders fall into the trap of committing avoidable feedback mistakes that sabotage growth and productivity.

From mindless criticism to sugar-coated praise, these mistakes can cripple a team’s potential and stifle progress. 

Professional feedback is essential. However, leaders often make crucial mistakes when they give feedback.

Often, it’s not their fault—business leaders often have little training when they take on leadership roles. One study found that 43 percent of managers with a year or less experience report no leadership training.

We explore the top pitfalls leaders encounter when delivering feedback and, more importantly, unveil the transformative impact of valuable critique. Revamp your leadership approach and empower your team to achieve their full potential.

What is feedback?

Feedback as a term is very broad. It refers to any information shared with an employee that’s designed to praise good work or offer constructive correction of mistakes. 

There can be some negative connotations around the word feedback, but it doesn’t always mean correction, it can also be praise, recognition, and constructive criticism. 

Feedback is not always from a leader to a direct report. Feedback can also be given from employees to leaders and among colleagues.

Strong leaders use feedback to reinforce positive behaviors and performance and to redirect employee efforts. The best feedback is followed by action, such as a training program or employee development plan to improve performance. 

Also, keep in mind that feedback can be both informal and formal. Regularly-scheduled feedback may come in the form of performance reviews, or employees may provide feedback in response to specific events, deliverables, or circumstances. 

Read more: Why are Performance Reviews Important? 

Not being specific

One of the easiest mistakes to make is not being specific enough in your feedback, whether positive or negative. “You need to improve your sales results” isn’t specific, nor is “Great job yesterday!”

Instead, provide specific examples of what’s been happening, whether good or bad. “I noticed that you aren’t personalizing your sales approach,” for example, or “Great job helping Sarah learn how to build that report yesterday.”

“When providing feedback as a leader, your main motivation is to help your employee improve,”  Meredith Fish, PHR, WorkRamp’s VP of People and Culture, says. “To do so, feedback must be specific and actionable. Saying ‘you didn’t do well in that meeting’ or ‘good work on that project,’ isn’t enough.”

Instead, Meredith recommends the following strategies:

  • Think about how to frame the feedback in a detailed way. This lets the employee picture the exact event/behavior and understand the impact. Try the SBI (Situation, Behavior, Impact) model to map out feedback or ask your employee what they could do differently next time or how they can handle that situation in the future. This helps them think through the feedback and how to incorporate it. 
  • Share your own experience. We’re all human and will make mistakes. Share similar mistakes you’ve made and what you learned from them. “Even today, when I’ve learned something through trial and error, or if I’m given feedback, I share it with my team,” Meredith says. “That way, they learn from my mistakes as well and can hopefully avoid the same pitfalls.”

With specific details, employees can address clear-cut behaviors to make improvements or continue to perform well. Being clear on what activities are a concern helps you coach, as well, because you can create a targeted plan to improve those issues. 

Failure to give regular feedback

While non-specific feedback is less than ideal, even vague feedback is better than none at all. 

You can’t wait until quarterly or annual reviews to offer constructive criticism or praise excellent work. 

Based on research from Zippia, 65 percent of employees desire more feedback and 43 percent of highly-engaged employees receive feedback at least once a week. 

Read more: 9 Strategies to Improve Employee Engagement

Gallup found that employees strongly agree that when they received meaningful feedback in the last week, they are 4x times as likely to be engaged at work. The secret is that giving feedback doesn’t have to take an hour. 

“One thing I’ve learned is that if there’s a theme to the feedback you give on a recurring basis, your team member might benefit from learning the ‘why’ and being given multiple examples of a successful outcome,” Kimberley Vandenbroek, Growth Product Manager, Twilio Segment says. “This shifts your management approach to coaching rather than correcting. Explaining the rationale behind the feedback, providing a few strong examples, and then asking the team member to point out how the rationale is demonstrated in those examples can help solidify the concept and reduce the pattern.”

Giving focused, timely advice and praise can be done in just a few minutes. That makes it much more manageable to think about giving your team members feedback a few times a week. 

Then, you can do an extended sit-down session once a month so that team members are always sure of where they stand, what they’re doing well, and where they can improve.

Focusing only on corrective feedback

Many managers are so focused on putting out fires that they only give feedback when they see something going wrong. This can make employees feel like their good work goes unnoticed, which is demoralizing. 

“Managers often make the mistake of being overly pessimistic, which creates a hostile and demotivating environment,” says Gary Gray, Co-Founder, CouponChief. “Balancing constructive criticism with recognition of achievements and strengths is crucial for fostering growth and inspiring employees to excel.”

Some advice suggests cushioning negative feedback with positive observations, which can be helpful, but it’s also essential to provide positive feedback on its own. 

A best practice is to try to give positive feedback five times for every instance of negative feedback. This may not always be possible, but it gives you something to shoot for and highlights the importance of noticing hard work.

While negative feedback should be given in private, don’t be afraid to give praise in front of others. Team or all-hands meetings are an excellent chance to recognize employees for good work or achievements. 

At WorkRamp, we have a Slack channel dedicated to sharing positive feedback and recognizing employees. The #props channel is one of our most active channels; team members can share praise and shoutouts. This is an easy way to provide ongoing positive feedback and ensure employees are recognized for their contributions. 

Giving feedback focused on the past

It can be frustrating when an employee makes a mistake, especially when it has a big impact on your organization. 

However, as a leader, you must control your emotions when giving feedback. That may mean venting privately to a trusted advisor or friend or managing your emotions in another way before meeting with the employee.

When you give feedback, you can address what happened, but the overall tone should be focused on how to improve in the future. For example, if the employee lost a major account because of how they handled a presentation, you can express how disappointing those mistakes are. Then, instead of dwelling on those mistakes, address how the employee can improve future presentations so they get better results.

Employees who make significant mistakes know they messed up and probably feel terrible about it. Focusing on how they can improve helps restore their confidence and improves the chances that their next performance will be significantly better.

Failing to listen to the employee’s perspective

As a leader, you can learn a lot about the causes of concerns and performance by listening to your team members. 

According to research, 83 percent of employees think they aren’t listened to fairly or equally at work. Actively listening to employees helps them feel valued and can also lead to increased productivity and initiative

Getting your employees’ perspectives can help you see if there’s a process that can be improved if someone needs additional training, if you have a leader emerging on your team, or if the activity you observed resulted from something you didn’t see. 

Getting this behind-the-scenes understanding of why employees act the way they do can help you coach, lead, and improve key processes within your department.

Waiting too long to give feedback

If you wait too long to give feedback, it becomes far less meaningful and effective. That’s one of the reasons it’s essential to focus on giving ongoing feedback instead of waiting until the end of the quarter or annual reviews

“One of the biggest feedback mistakes is not discussing issues in a timely manner,” Nadzeya Sankovich, VP of Communications, HealthReporter, says. “When feedback comes immediately, it helps resolve problems quickly. You can also avoid distortions if you discuss the situation immediately rather than several days later.”

The sooner an employee gets feedback, the faster they can make changes and improve future performance or maintain their motivation to do great work. 

Also, don’t wait until an employee’s performance is well below expectations before you address it. Someone who has to find their way out of a substantial hole will feel more overwhelmed and hopeless than someone who receives feedback as soon as their performance slips.

Confusing personal preference with performance issues

Your employee dresses within the dress code, but you don’t think it looks professional enough. Someone uses an effective process that isn’t the one you prefer. One of your employees has tics or mannerisms that you find distracting.

Some managers would give feedback on these issues as if they were performance-related, but they aren’t. These are personal preferences, and employees have the right to express themselves, use effective work methods, and have their individual personalities even if it doesn’t feel comfortable for you all the time.

“Employees work differently from one another, and managers who sprinkle their personal preferences on how their team members should accomplish tasks are counterproductive,” Nat Miletic, Owner and CEO, Clio Websites, says. “In most cases, managers disguise their personal preferences as feedback and may come across as micromanagement when employees fail to deliver what they want. This feedback stunts employee productivity and engagement.”

Review your concerns before talking to your employees to ensure they are actual performance concerns rather than preferences. You can even ask a trusted colleague—sometimes, an outside perspective brings important clarity.

Failing to give feedback in person

Yes, giving corrective feedback can be intimidating for the giver and recipient. However, putting the employee first and giving feedback in person is essential anyway. 

Giving feedback via email or phone feels very impersonal, doesn’t give the employee a chance to share their perspective, and feels more like an attack than constructive criticism. Also, it’s very easy to misinterpret tone, which can lead to one or both of you making false assumptions. 

If you’re nervous about giving feedback, consider finding a trusted colleague or mentor to role-play the conversation and get tips on handling various responses.

It takes courage to lead; part of that courage is the ability to face people and share your concerns honestly. 

Basing constructive feedback on others’ statements

Finding out that someone has been praising you behind your back is wonderful—finding out they are saying critical things certainly isn’t. Not only that, using others’ statements as the foundation for criticism makes it seem like you aren’t paying attention yourself. 

Some managers feel more comfortable giving critiques in other people’s names because it makes them “not the bad guy” in the conversation, but the truth is that it’s very disempowering for the employee.

Your team member can’t answer to the person who gave the criticism, and it’s demoralizing to believe that someone is talking poorly about you to your boss. 

Never base your feedback on what someone else has said. Instead, make your own observations and give specific, actionable feedback.

If another leader has feedback based on their observations, set up a meeting between you, your employee, and that leader to address the issue.

How well do you give feedback?

Do you make any of these mistakes? If you do, you’re not alone. Leaders need both positive and constructive feedback on their performance, too, so that they can improve.

The most important thing is ensuring that both you and your employees can take steps to do better moving forward. Sometimes that means getting additional training on key skills to help you or your team member work more effectively and grow in your careers.

Effective training needs requires a solid foundation. The Learning Cloud from WorkRamp is the best all-in-one solution for employee, leadership, and customer training. With the Learning Cloud, you can create engaging onboarding, employee development, leadership training, customer education, and more.

Discover how the Learning Cloud can help you develop influential leaders and improve performance. Contact us to schedule a free, personalized demo. 

Complete the form for a custom demo.

Anna Spooner

WorkRamp Contributor

Anna Spooner is a digital strategist and marketer with over 11 years of experience. She writes content for various industries, including SaaS, medical and personal insurance, healthcare, education, marketing, and business. She enjoys the process of putting words around a company’s vision and is an expert at making complex ideas approachable and encouraging an audience to take action. 

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