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Giving Feedback: Pack It with Nutritional Value

A person in a suit is holding a container of food.

​You're lying in bed, inwardly cringing as you think about having that conversation tomorrow—where you'll have to tell an employee to her face that her work is subpar and corrective measures are needed.

"Those conversations are what make people nervous and frustrated and sometimes make them leave their jobs," said Shari Harley, founder and president of Candid Culture, an international training and consulting firm based in Denver. Harley, who worked in HR for eight years, offered advice during her presentation, "What to Say When You've Waited Too Long: Giving Useful Feedback" at the SHRM Talent Conference & Expo 2023 in Orlando, Fla.

Oftentimes conversations about workplace behavior and performance are frustrating for the individual receiving the feedback because it lacks specifics. The manager uses what Harley calls "Cap'n Crunch" terms—verbiage that, like the children's cereal, lacks nutritional value. Telling the employee she has a bad attitude, is not detail-oriented or is unmotivated is not specific, Harley said. The employee leaves the conversation not knowing how to correct the problem.

"This is all opinion, and opinion is subjective and … why people refuse to sign appraisals," she explained. "You haven't given them enough information to be helpful. People leave this conversation [thinking], 'OK, I'm in trouble but I don't know why I'm in trouble.' "

Instead, Harley recommends sharing an example of how a bad attitude affected customer service, or when a lack of detail hurt a project. She offered the following formula for delivering feedback:

  1. Introduce the conversation: : "I need 10 minutes with you." If the conversation is being conducted remotely, make sure the employee has privacy.

    "Feedback's always tricky and always emotional. Human beings don't like to be told they're wrong," Harley said. Oftentimes they become emotional because they care enough about their job to get upset.

  2. State your motive for the conversation: "I care about your career, and I want you to be successful. As your manager, my job is to support that, and I'm seeing something that's impacting you negatively and I want to tell you about it."

    This is the "why" of the conversation and builds trust at the start, Harley explained. 

  3. Describe the behavior: "I've noticed … ." If the performance issue is not something you have witnessed, you must validate the issue, such as through confidential phone calls with individuals who did observe the behavior. In this case, start the conversation by saying, "I'm aware … ." Do not say, "Someone told me," because the employee's attention will be on trying to figure out who that "someone" was.

    Concrete examples are a must when meeting with the employee.

    "If I do not have a specific example" of the problem, Harley said, "I don't give the feedback."
    Also, don't overwhelm the employee with your feedback. Harley recalled a young employee whose very detailed manager gave her 24 things to work on during her performance review.
    "I give a maximum of three things—preferably one or two," she said. "If someone gets too much feedback in a short amount of time … performance dips."

  4. State the impact of the employee’s behavior. For example, a manager is concerned after overhearing an employee speaking condescendingly about an initiative the manager introduced at a recent meeting. Although the manager asked team members for their questions and concerns, the employee sat quietly. The manager’s aim in the feedback scenario is to curb the negative behavior and assure the employee that team members can speak freely; not doing so can undercut the initiative and contribute to poor morale.

  5. . Ask for the employee's perception of the situation. Expect the employee to be defensive, but defensiveness is not a performance issue, Harley pointed out.

    During the conversation, assure the employee: " 'I know this is hard and I want you to think about it, and let's talk again in a week.' " Harley advised. "Time in feedback is people's friend. In a week it'll be a different conversation."

    Another approach is to suggest the employee talk to two or three close friends or family members about the feedback and ask if they can validate the behavior in question. Then meet again with the manager in a week.

  6. Ask the employee for ideas on how to address the issue at hand. The employee who was uncomfortable speaking up during a meeting may suggest e-mailing or meeting privately with the manager about any concerns. 

  7. Build an agreement on next steps: Acknowledge the awkwardness of the conversation and promise to provide regular feedback in the future.  

  8. Say "Thank you."

The point of feedback is to offer enough information that the person knows what behaviors to continue and what behaviors to change, but the feedback needs to be specific and timely. When done right, Harley said, it's like a GPS system for job performance.

"How long do we wait to give feedback at work sometimes, when someone is a little bit off track?" Harley asked. No one wants to exit the wrong ramp or be headed miles and miles out of their way, just as employees don't want to learn their performance has been steering them in the wrong direction for weeks and weeks.


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