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Give Feedback Like a Coach

by Marco Nink and Jennifer Robison

Story Highlights

  • Good feedback can improve employee performance and prevent problems
  • Praise motivates if it's timely, specific and individualized
  • These seven principles can help managers deliver effective feedback

Gallup recently discovered that only 21% of U.S. employees strongly agree that they have received meaningful feedback in the last week. Whether managers are shying away from uncomfortable topics or are willing but ineffective feedback providers, few employees are hearing what they need. And managers are overlooking a very effective technique they could use to build a better culture.

Remember: Though managers drive the culture, employees fuel it. The workers' perspectives are crucial to the culture's outcomes. Managers can use the following guiding principles to help keep the employee perspective in mind.

  1. Make feedback timely and futuristic. As a general rule, managers should always promptly address the potential for improvement but focus on the future. Be specific and timely with suggestions so the employee can implement them immediately, but don't criticize the person as a person -- that's looking backward. Instead, emphasize specific improvements to look forward and get results faster.
  2. Promote strengths. Positive reinforcement of employees' behaviors allows them to recognize their own areas of potential. If employees receive feedback based predominantly on weaknesses, they learn what they shouldn't do. It's possible to work on weaknesses, but the learning process is significantly more frustrating, progress is slower and the result tends to be average instead of excellent. Telling employees how to succeed -- not how to stop failing -- is more effective.
  3. Explain the fallout. Actions have consequences, but people may not know what they are. Managers should share with people the downstream effects of their behavior on other team members, the company and their own potential for advancement.

    Telling employees how to succeed -- not how to stop failing -- is more effective.

  4. Be concise and clear. It's difficult to process more than one or two points of constructive feedback. And sandwiching feedback between praise and recognition can inhibit the results -- some employees will only hear the praise and not act on the criticism, and others will only hear the criticism and won't register the positive reinforcement. Clarity and concision enhance correction.
  5. Be direct and own your feedback. Use first-person statements when giving feedback. Saying something like, "Your colleagues are complaining about you," undermines team dynamics and feels unfair to the employee.
  6. Communicate frequently and collaboratively. Conversations in regular cadences enable managers and employees to develop real relationships and work together as requirements change. If it becomes apparent that a team member is not achieving their goals, ask why, what steps or measures could help, and which obstacles should be removed. Then brainstorm together about realistic solutions rather than imposing a corrective plan. As a rule of thumb, managers should speak 30% of the time and employees, 70%. Listening more than speaking gives managers time to get to know employees and their concerns.
  7. Ask for feedback. Managers who ask for feedback set an example for employees to follow. By inviting feedback -- which is the most effective form of feedback -- they demonstrate the best approach to constructive criticism. And employees learn to ask for strengths-based feedback from each other.

The Importance of Positivity

Though the seven guiding principles tend to refer to constructive feedback intended to improve performance, managers should remember that the best feedback is often praise. In fact, Gallup has found employees should be recognized for great work about once a week -- highlighting what an employee does right encourages them to do more of it. (This is just one reason strengths-based feedback is so effective.) If an employee's performance is not recognized, they have trouble seeing how their work contributes to the success of the company, which can derail their desire to excel.

Praise, on the other hand, is like espresso: uplifting and invigorating. Specific and timely recognition reinforces an employee's belief in their own abilities and skills and motivates them to tackle even more difficult tasks.

Gallup has found employees should be recognized for great work about once a week -- highlighting what an employee does right encourages them to do more of it.

Managers should be sincere -- random pats on the back aren't inspiring -- and clear about the praise they are giving. Details matter. For instance, hearing, "You researched this well, got to the heart of the problem and developed several potential solutions," affirms the employee's strengths, directs their future behavior, and expresses appreciation from the manager and the organization.

Feedback should always include the big picture, but be sure to consider the individual, as not all employees like to receive praise in the same manner. Some people want one-on-one feedback. Others prefer praise and recognition in front of the team or department, and others prefer recognition in writing. Ask employees how they prefer recognition. Ask them to describe times praise was especially meaningful -- and times it made them uncomfortable. What you learn will help you understand what resonates with and motivates each employee.

Teams also benefit from positive feedback. Recognizing everyone involved motivates performance and nourishes a culture of positive feedback within the group. Praised employees praise each other and pay more attention to each other, too.

Make Time for Feedback

Any kind of feedback, if delivered well, establishes a culture of ongoing improvement and shared ownership: Employees are genuinely invested in getting better at their job. High-quality conversations between managers and employees are rarer than they should be, and leaders should ensure these conversations occur on a regular basis -- and that they directly benefit the employee. That is, workers need to walk away from a conversation with their manager feeling like they got something out of it. Most people want to learn and grow personally and professionally; a manager's feedback proves their interest in the individual and their development.

Put simply, feedback doesn't just improve performance -- it also feeds an important emotional need at work.

Two in 10 U.S. employees strongly agree that they received meaningful feedback in the last week. Substantially increasing that percentage could significantly influence employee performance.

That isn't to say managers should brashly wade into sensitive topics. That could render employees even more resistant to constructive criticism. Rather, managers should provide feedback sensitively, skillfully and strategically -- aware of their influence over their team's culture of feedback.

Managers shape that culture, but employees create the momentum. And quality feedback helps them arrive where they want to go.

Learn more about creating a culture of feedback:

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Marco Nink is Gallup's Director of Research and Analytics, EMEA.

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