Why It's Important to Give Your Team Actionable Feedback
Updated: Oct 8
Feedback sessions. Love 'em or hate 'em, they have to be accomplished.
I know a lot of people who hate them. They dread being on the receiving end and they drag their feet on the giving end.
But how do you know how you're doing if no one ever tells you? How will an employee know they're messing up if you never tell them?
Some employees will be happy to work on a project with little direction. Some prefer this and thrive with little direction.
But a lot of employees will feel disoriented if they never receive any feedback or direction about how they're doing. Even worse is when they aren't told they're doing something wrong until it's too late to fix it.
Don't be the kind of boss that waits until it's too late.
We don’t want people guessing at what they’re doing. We want to equip them with the right information to more forward. The way to accomplish this is get in the habit of providing regular and actionable feedback.
I’ve Never Had a Mid-term Feedback Session Before
I recently had a mid-term feedback session with a direct report. The first thing he said to me was, “You’re my seventh supervisor and this is the first time I’ve ever had a formal mid-term feedback session. When your secretary called me to schedule it, I thought I was in trouble.”
I was astounded. Several thoughts ran through my mind, none of them great, but all I could say was, “Wow, I’m so sorry this is the first one.”
Then it got me thinking about how often I received a formal mid-term feedback. The Air Force says we should have a mid-term feedback every year with our subordinates. But I didn't consistently receive a formal mid-term feedback session from each of my supervisors. And to be honest, I didn't consistently provide formal mid-term feedback sessions with everyone I ever supervised.
I did my best to schedule initial and mid-term feedback sessions with everyone, but it didn't always happen. Life got in the way. I ran out of time. Something else came up.
Lame excuses. I know.
Importance of Giving Regular and Actionable Feedback
So what happens when you don’t offer feedback? Simply put, your employees won’t know how they’re doing.
Failing to give your employees regular feedback can be stressful for you too. Imagine you had heartburn over the way they did or didn't do something, but you never told them. Nothing would ever change and you would continue to stress over it.
In the end, feedback is good for everyone.
The Various Faces of Feedback
You should always have an initial feedback session when you have a new direct report. This establishes a baseline for your expectations. It provides the employee with guidelines for behavioral expectations and boundaries for performance.
This is a good time to reiterate the organization's values, standards, goals, and vision. You should not have to address the employee's work performance during this session, unless you observe something of concern that should be addressed immediately.
This feedback session should take place close to the time of onboarding. Each organization may have a different standard for when this is. It is reasonable to provide an initial feedback session within the first 45-60 days.
Formal and documented feedback should be scheduled ahead of time. You as the leader should take the time to put thought toward that feedback. Make it specific, actionable and useful. Vague platitudes about the work they do are not helpful.
This may be known as a mid-term, mid-year appraisal or performance review. Whatever it may be called, do not pencil-whip this. It should be taken seriously.
Compare the employee's performance with the standards you established at the initial feedback. If the performance is not where you expect it to be, talk about what the goal looks like and how you can get there.
An informal feedback session doesn’t have to be documented. Informal feedback can come in many different ways. For those who work in a customer service environment, customer comment cards can be used to share informal feedback with an employee.
As leaders, we can provide words of encouragement to let employees know they're doing a great job. Other times we can provide guidance to mitigate a problem in the future.
Ever heard the phrase "Praise in public, criticize in private?" If you go around publicly acknowledging the things done well, the people you praise will feel a sense of pride (even if they get embarrassed about the attention). Additionally, the people around them will understand the level of performance or behavior that is expected.
It's not that all positive feedback must always be delivered in public, but it’s nice when it is.
Other ways to offer positive feedback include employee award nominations and compliments about how well someone is performing. They’re always appreciated, especially when unexpected. When you deliver a compliment, make sure it’s genuine. Be specific and point out why what they did was great or important.
Ideally, any kind of feedback to correct behavior should be offered immediately. Telling people six weeks after the fact that you didn’t like the way they did something is very unhelpful.
If you're correcting behavior that is serious enough in nature, the feedback should be documented with both you and the employee acknowledging the feedback occurred.
Be sure to focus on the desired end result and provide a way to achieve it.
Performance Improvement Plan
If you have an employee struggling to meet standards, you should consider creating a performance improvement plan. Some organizations have a formal process for doing this. I recommend working with your Human Resources department to determine the best way forward for this.
A performance improvement plan is roadmap for both you and the employee to develop a way ahead to get his or her performance on track and aligned with expectations. It's a tool that helps you monitor the employee's progress. When you're both committed to improvement, the performance improvement plan can be helpful in getting them where they need to be.
An annual evaluation should never be the first time an employee gets any indication of how they’re doing. If you’ve been meeting with your subordinates on a regular basis and having honest conversations about their performance, nothing covered on the annual evaluation should be a surprise.
People Can’t Fix What They Don’t Know About
Don’t be afraid to give feedback. It’s not wine; problems don’t get better with age. People aren’t mind-readers either. You can’t assume they know they’re failing to meet expectations.
A hospital where I worked hired a new clinical manager. His subordinates grumbled about his lack of attention-to-detail. His supervisor complained about his inability to prioritize work and get things done on time.
Surprise, surprise, no one told him any of this.
The clinical manager's supervisor marked him as having met all expectations on his first annual evaluation. Why? Because she was afraid to tell him the truth. She disliked confrontation.
A month later, he made a mistake that was serious enough to negatively impact patient safety. It was a mistake that resulted from his inattentiveness.
This could have been avoided had his supervisor addressed his under-performance from the onset and given him guidance on how to improve. Instead, she complained about him and it wasn’t until a serious mistake occurred before she was compelled to address his behavior.
Actionable Feedback Works
I once supervised an employee with brilliant technical skills. I swear, he could fix a computer blind-folded. However, his customer service skills kept people from asking for his help. His demeanor was grumpy, and his response to a lot of work order requests was, "It's really simple." But people thought he was belittling them.
Clearly he was unable to connect and communicate with his customers in a way they understood. He found them just as frustrating as they found him.
Once I pulled him aside to give him feedback, I learned he was open to finding ways to improve. He just needed some guidance. He thought he was reassuring his customers by telling them it was simple and was surprised to hear the customers interpreted it differently.
We came up with some strategies for him to improve his interactions with his customers. He chose his words more carefully. He asked questions and spent more time listening. He worked on understanding where his customers were coming from.
He checked in with me regularly to make sure he was on the right track. Eventually, he was able to meet his customers where they were and the customer complaints decreased.
Prioritize Giving Actionable Feedback So They Can Succeed
I believe the vast majority of employees want to know how they're doing and have a desire to perform well. But they can't do this if they don't know how they're doing.
I've inherited my share of underperforming employees and a cursory glance at their performance reports revealed they met or exceeded standards. Either they suddenly stopped working at a high level or their previous supervisors were unable or unwilling to provide honest feedback. And the employees were still there, chugging away at their jobs, thinking everything they did was right. This is what happens when you don't give people actionable feedback.
Giving feedback can be stressful for you as a leader. It's a learned skill and not necessarily easy for everyone. With practice and experience, we can get better at it. It doesn't mean it will ever become less stressful or that you will learn to like it.
However, if you prioritize helping your people grow through regular and actionable feedback, you and your team can only benefit from it.
Comment Below: In what ways have you seen people and teammates benefit from receiving actionable feedback, or in what ways have you or your teammates suffered from not receiving actionable feedback?