Personal Growth

How to Give Fair Feedback

In my last blog, I wrote about how to respond to unfair feedback as an employee. Now I want to explain how supervisors can give feedback that feels, and is, fair.

For context, a friend of mine was recently stung when his supervisor handed him a letter at 4:20 pm on a Friday afternoon. The letter outlined a series of complaints that he had been unaware of – he didn’t even remember some of the things that were mentioned. He asked if he could discuss the letter, but the supervisor responded with, “No, we’ll talk about it on Monday.”

This feels like an unfair approach to feedback – and it’s ineffective. Let’s imagine that the supervisor did have something that was important for my friend to hear. Delivering the feedback right before the weekend and shutting down any opportunity for dialogue eliminated any chance for it to be well-received.

In my view, there are several things the supervisor could have done differently to strengthen the effectiveness of their feedback. Here are six steps for giving fair feedback:

1. Provide immediate feedback.

It’s easy for supervisors to let small things slide and store them up for a larger conversation. However, if you bring up multiple issues at once, you run the risk of overwhelming the employee. Most people learn best when their mistakes are pointed out to them soon after they happen. This allows them to reflect on the issue while it’s still fresh in their memory. It also prevents them from forming a habit out of the incorrect way of doing things. Instead of making a list of things someone has done wrong and then giving it to them in a feedback meeting, talk to them about issues as they arise.

2. Be mindful of when you give feedback.

When it’s not possible to give feedback in the moment, consider other times when the employee will be receptive to what you have to say. Avoid giving feedback right before the employee has to attend a meeting, office party, or give a presentation – and don’t give feedback at the end of the week. People need time to absorb criticism about their work, and the weekend isn’t usually the best time to do that. They need a chance to think through the new information in the context of their work. That way they’ll be able to face the kind of situation that elicited the feedback in the first place.

If you’re going to give feedback in a more formal setting, try meeting earlier in the week so that the employee can immediately implement what they’ve been told.

3. Be mindful of where you give feedback.

Depending on what the feedback is about, consider whether it should be given privately. If your critique is related to a specific behaviour, you risk embarrassing the receiver if it’s given in front of others. This will make it much harder for them to accept what you have to say.

Although your feedback might not seem like a big issue to you, it may be significant for the employee. Some people will want privacy so that they can process what you are saying without distraction, even if it is mild or positive.

Everyone needs feedback in order to improve themselves – and everyone deserves to be treated with respect when receiving it.

4. Focus on behaviour, not character.

One of the most common mistakes when giving feedback is making assumptions about the employee’s behaviour. For instance, you might think an employee has been coming late to meetings because they don’t care, or that someone didn’t volunteer for an assignment because they are trying to get away with only doing the bare minimum. Speculating in this way ultimately clouds your ability to give feedback about specific behaviours. It can cause you to focus on something you don’t like about the person.

If you want to be an effective supervisor, focus on a specific behaviour that needs to change. Focusing on character creates defensiveness – focusing on behaviour and its impact creates an opportunity for learning.

5. Make the conversation mutual.

As a supervisor, you should always try to make the conversation a mutual one. That means focusing on why you want to have the conversation and see the employee make the change. Start by clarifying your positive intentions for giving feedback, and how they relate to the employee’s positive intentions for their work.

For example, most employees want to do their best and be seen in a positive light. Because of this, you might give feedback because you’re worried the employee’s behaviour is making it difficult for others to see them that way.

Another critical part of having a mutual conversation is listening. This means asking questions about the person’s behaviour rather than starting with your interpretation of it. Their answers may contain a critical piece of information that will make you reconsider what you are going to say.

6. Discuss a positive vision for the future.

Your conversation should finish with a plan – talk with the employee about what they can do differently based on your feedback. Make sure the conversation is specific and framed in the language of behaviour, not character.

Conclude by thanking the employee for taking the time to have the conversation with you. Let them know you are there to support them as they integrate the feedback and make any necessary changes.

Everyone needs feedback in order to improve themselves – and everyone deserves to be treated with respect when receiving it. Feedback should be a conversation that protects the dignity of the employee and clearly communicates what changes need to be made. Following the steps outlined above will help you deliver feedback that is fair and well-received.

For more free resources, visit our resources page.


Eric Stutzman

Chief Executive Officer

Eric is co-author of ACHIEVE’s book, The Culture Question: How to Create a Workplace Where People Like to Work. This book is available on our website.

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