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Get over being afraid to give feedback

3 min read


“Tell me why you never talked to Josh about the problems with his job performance.”

“I didn’t want to hurt his feelings.”

This dialogue happened during legal discovery as part of an unlawful-termination lawsuit. Fed up with an employee’s ongoing failure to meet job requirements, the supervisor had fired him. The employee believed he had been fired because he was older and more tenured than the rest of his department and hence earned more money.

If you supervise people, speaking to them candidly and with care about their job-performance deficiencies is a must-have skill.

I’ll never forget the first time I had to tell one of my employees his job performance was missing the mark. I’d postponed the discussion a dozen times. The time lag only made me more and more uncomfortable and dashed my secret hopes that he would read my mind and miraculously start doing a better job.

As the possibility of that miracle receded, I talked to a respected colleague.  He asked me what I was afraid of.

“I’m afraid of hurting his feelings.”

“What will happen if his performance doesn’t improve?”

“I’ll have to let him go.”

“What about his feelings then?”


My colleague reminded me that effective leaders have a vested interest in improving the skills of their employees. As such, they speak frankly and frequently about performance with them. He emphasized that those discussions originate in caring rather than being a forced obligation because some form is due to the HR department. As leaders, we own developing our people just we own production or sales numbers or whatever other metric is used as the yardstick to assess work output.

Make it a habit. Give direct reports consistent and ongoing coaching and feedback about how they’re doing, both good and bad. Seize the moment. There’s no need to wait for review time.

Be specific. Generalities may be easier to deliver but offer insufficient data to help individual know what to start, stop or continue. Research done by Angelo S. DeNisi and Avraham N. Kluger showed that 38% of feedback discussions had a negative effect on performance.

“You need to be nicer to customers” is open to lots of interpretation. Say instead:

  • “Smile and make eye contact when you greet customers.”
  • “Your voice is friendly so use it to your advantage when you ask them how you can help.”

That feedback paints a much clearer picture of what performance is expected.

Saying “Good job!” is worthy recognition yet doesn’t give the necessary specificity to help develop particular skills and/or behaviors. Say instead, “Great job on that presentation to the boss! You had all the facts and had analyzed them well. Plus, you had anticipated her objections so you were able to deflect her push-back with facts and did so with appropriate humor — well done!”

Build a culture in which employees give feedback to one another. There’s nothing that says that feedback can only come from the boss! Remember, it’s not about you. If constructive feedback is offered with empathy, conflict is unnecessary.

As for that employee who was my first “feedback guinea pig,” he thanked me for being upfront with him and went on to become a star performer.

Jane Perdue is a leadership-development speaker, writer and founder of Braithwaite Innovation Group. Perdue is @thehrgoddess on Twitter and blogs at LeadBIG.