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How to give employee feedback that makes a difference

6-minute read

Manager giving feedback to an employee in a coffee shop
Catriona Smith

Catriona Smith

1 December 2023

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You might have heard the expression ‘all feedback is good feedback’ but there’s actually an art to it. In fact, sharing employee feedback at the wrong moment or without compassion can have a negative impact on motivation.

But what makes good feedback? And how do you know if you’ve got the balance right between positive and developmental feedback? Keep reading for tips on how to give employee feedback in your small business – and tools and resources to help your team thrive.

You’ll also get some expert tips from a people team professional based on their experience in the HR industry.

When (and how) to give employee feedback

Whether you have full time staff or temporary workers, it’s important to give feedback consistently and regularly. An issue left too long can only escalate and a good job well done is important to recognise in the moment to keep your people motivated.

5 tips from an HR expert

We caught up with Maria Brugel on what makes great feedback. Maria is a Learning and Development Manager at Simply Business, with 12 years’ L&D experience behind her, working to support growth and development of our leaders and their teams.

Here, she shares her tips for giving feedback to employees:

1. Give informal feedback often

I think this is really critical to build a positive culture around feedback conversations and minimise the fear that often comes with ‘feedback’.

Use opportunities to give informal feedback often and make it specific, both with positive and developmental feedback. A way to build on this is to put in place a regular feedback cycle – a more formal approach to feedback conversations but done more frequently than just once a year to normalise these discussions.

2. Remember feedback is a two-way conversation

Always make sure your team member has the opportunity to reflect on the situation themselves. This helps build their self-awareness as well as takes the pressure off you to ‘deliver’ the feedback, which is often the hard part.

Prompt them to share their view to open a productive conversation and create a sense of dual ownership. Simple conversation starters could look like:

  • “Tell me…”
  • “Help me understand…”
  • “Explain how you arrived…”

3. Focus on behaviour (not personal qualities)

Feedback should always be focused on behaviour, and not personal qualities. It often helps to use a feedback model to frame the feedback conversation to make sure your feedback remains objective and focused on what you want your team member to do differently.

A simple model is Situation Behaviour Impact Action (SBIA) – describe the situation, describe the behaviour you observed, share what impact it had on you or others in the team, and what action you would like them to take going forward.

4. Bring a positive perspective

Approach all feedback opportunities by thinking about how it will benefit your team member. It’s your chance to help them grow and develop rather than feel demotivated.

With this in mind, you want to make sure your feedback is specific and actionable so that your employee gets a chance to repeat the desired behaviour – or do things differently next time.

5. Make sure you’re prepared

While you don’t want to over-rehearse the conversation, it’s important to be clear on the key messages you want your employee to understand. Consider the time and place for the conversation too – is it appropriate to give developmental feedback at the start of a busy day or in the earshot of customers?

After you’ve given the feedback, work with them to set SMART goals – Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-bound – so your worker knows how to improve.

Recognising good work and building a positive culture

Creating and maintaining a positive work culture takes work, but one way you can do this is to think about how you recognise your staff. Bonuses, company outings, and shout-outs in your company newsletter are all ways you can demonstrate your appreciation.

It’s important to tailor your feedback to the person. For example, some people like a public announcement for a job well done whereas others would prefer a message or a private meeting.

If your small business is taking on employees for the first time, Maria shares her tips for getting performance management and feedback right from the word go:

“I think it’s super important to set expectations early on, so thoughtful preparation is key. How do you see the employee contributing to the success of your business? What are their responsibilities and objectives? How will they know they're successful? And how often will you review their progress?”

“It’s likely that an employee in a small business will have to wear a few different ‘hats’ to get things done, so the more clarity you can provide at the outset, the easier the feedback and performance conversations should be down the line.”

Maria adds: “In the words of social researcher Brené Brown, ‘Clear is kind. Unclear is unkind’.”

Types of employee feedback

There are two types of feedback – and it’s important to give both to help your employees know how they’re doing in their jobs.

Positive feedback

More than just praise, positive employee feedback should be specific and timely. What exactly was it that made a job so well done? Or what skills did they demonstrate and what was the impact? Reinforcing certain behaviours lets your employees know that you value them and what they’re doing right.

It’s important to give more positive feedback than negative so people don’t feel disengaged and unmotivated.

Developmental feedback

Sometimes known as feedback for employee performance or constructive feedback, letting someone know when they’ve made a mistake or need to improve their performance can be tricky.

Feedback for development should focus on the behaviours and skills you want them to improve. It’s not about telling them what they’re doing wrong, but giving them support and specific goals to help them develop.

Employee feedback examples

Let’s say you run a small bakery and coffee shop in your local town and you have a small team of five working for you. One of your employees is good at their job but their time-keeping isn’t meeting your expectations – they’re always 15 minutes late to their shift. And this is starting to cause annoyance with the rest of your team.

Keeping in mind that feedback should be constructive, you could say something like:

“I’ve noticed that you’ve not been making it to work in time for the start of your shift recently. I really value the work you do but I need to know I can rely on you to be here on time. It’s the same expectation I have for everyone on the team so we can keep everything running smoothly. Is there anything going on that’s making it difficult for you to manage your time?”

The key here is to be direct about the specific issue and your expectations. And by asking a question to check in with them, you’re not being accusatory but are giving them an opportunity to share their perspective. Listen empathically and then get confirmation from them that they’ll be able to meet your expectations moving forward.

Meanwhile, positive employee feedback examples include:

  • “You did a great job on managing that difficult customer yesterday. [add specifics here]...”
  • “I really appreciate the way you…”
  • “Thank you for going the extra mile on [insert project/task]. I can really trust you to be organised and focused when it counts.”
  • “I’m really impressed with how you…[insert skills or behaviour demonstrated]...”

Employee feedback questions – how to start the conversation

Perhaps you’ve only just taken on your first member of staff to support you working in your retail shop, it can be tricky to know how to start a feedback conversation. Especially if you’re still figuring out your personal management style.

The key is having regular one-to-one meetings in the calendar so you have a forum for feedback and updates on both sides. It’s also important to have clear development goals and performance objectives so your team knows what’s expected of them.

Questions you could ask in these meetings include:

  • how did you feel about [insert specific project or task]?
  • what have been your highlights or challenges this week?
  • how can I best support you with that?
  • how are you finding working with a team?

You can then add your observations and feedback as part of this conversation.

It’s also a good idea to give your team a forum that makes it easy for them to share feedback too. For example, you could introduce a way for staff to give feedback to each other or circulate a 360 employee feedback survey.

Employee feedback tools and resources

For businesses with a bit of budget to spend, you might be looking for employee feedback software to help you manage and view performance with your team. Here are just a few solutions out there:

  • Culture Amp – for performance tracking, peer feedback, and engagement surveys
  • SurveyMonkey – to get feedback from your staff on how they feel about their role
  • BambooHR – an HR platform from onboarding to performance management
  • Zoho People – a full HR software package with everything from recruitment to employee engagement and goal setting
  • Dare to Lead – a podcast and resources from Brené Brown on developing as a leader

Overall, creating a workplace that welcomes feedback from all levels and people in your business will help foster an open and transparent culture. Start conversations, have regular meetings (even if it’s just informally over a coffee), and be open to feedback yourself – keep this in mind and you’ll nurture a productive and happy team.

What’s your experience giving employee feedback? Let us know your tips and challenges in the comments below.

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Photograph: Friends Stock/stock.adobe.com
Catriona Smith

Written by

Catriona Smith

Catriona Smith is a content and marketing professional with 12 years’ experience across the financial services, higher education, and insurance sectors. She’s also a trained NCTJ Gold Standard journalist. As a Senior Copywriter at Simply Business, Catriona has in-depth knowledge of small business concerns and specialises in tax, marketing, and business operations. Catriona lives in the seaside city of Brighton where she’s also a freelance yoga teacher.

We create this content for general information purposes and it should not be taken as advice. Always take professional advice. Read our full disclaimer

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