As a manager, do you provide regular feedback to employees to let them know if they’re doing a good job or how they might improve their productivity? Many of us may think we do, but unfortunately, feedback is often negative or given informally.

“Feedback is an important part of every supervisor-employee relationship – it informs employees about the quality of their performance,” says Bob Milligan, an emeritus professor from Cornell University and human-resource consultant to the ag industry.

Without feedback an employee becomes uncertain as to how he’s doing and how he might improve job performance. This uncertainty is frustrating, de-motivating and hinders productivity. Employee uncertainty often results in job hunting – especially among employees driven to succeed.

There’s an art to giving feedback.Milligan says the first guideline for giving feedback is to focus on the performance, not the person.

The second important guideline is to recognize that there are three forms of feedback: positive, negative and redirection.

 “Positive feedback should only be given to reward successful performance and to reinforce that the action or performance should be repeated,” says Milligan.

He says a common mistake is to use positive feedback to “be nice” in response to good intentions. Unsuccessful performance with good intentions calls for redirection feedback instead, Milligan explains.

Use redirection feedback when performance does not meet the standard due to something out of the employee’s control – such as lack of training, ineffective supervision, unpredictable circumstances or unreasonable expectations.

Redirection feedback stops the incorrect performance and redirects using training or other strategies. To give redirection feedback, Milligan offers these tips:

  • Begin with positive feedback on positive efforts and expectations met or exceeded.
  • Identify which performance is not acceptable.
  • Emphasize that the employee is not at fault, so it’s clear this is not a reprimand. 
  • Discuss the required changes in the situation – skills to be learned, knowledge to be gained, behaviors changed, actions taken, resources provided, expectations adjusted, training needed – to redirect and enable future “successful” performance.

Use negative feedback when performance does not meet expectations, and the failure to perform can only be explained by the employee’s personal characteristics and behaviors – such as lack of motivation, effort, attention to detail or commitment.

Milligan also emphasizes that negative feedback must produce sufficient consequence to cause a change in employee behavior. He says a reprimand, punishment, demotion, or removing privileges are sample consequences that may be used.

To provide negative feedback, Milligan suggests:

  • Begin with positive feedback on positive efforts and expectations met or exceeded.
  • Identify what performance is not acceptable.
  • Emphasize that change is expected.
  • Make clear that the situation did not cause the unacceptable performance, but that the employee’s behavior is the issue related to unsatisfactory performance.
  • Present a consequence should the poor performance not improve – such as absence of positive feedback, a reprimand or punishment.
  • Reiterate that the goal is for the employee to succeed in producing satisfactory performance.

In situations that require negative feedback, Milligan says, “Be prepared to make the consequence progressive. For instance, make it clear that repeating the undesired behavior will lead to more severe consequences, perhaps even probation, which could lead to dismissal.

Document situations when an employee does not address behavior and performance issues. You want to prevent future “he said-she said” standoffs.

Providing negative feedback does not make youthe bad guy; rather you’re providing the employee a choice of correcting the poor performance or incurring the consequence, Milligan says.

It’s important to balance positive, redirection and negative feedback as necessary, he adds.

Milligan offers these additional tips:

  • Keep feedback specific to a particular action. An example: rather than, “You are doing a good job;” give a compliment on a specific accomplishment by the employee.
  • Be certain that employees have a clear understanding of performance expectations so they have the opportunity to succeed.
  • Provide timely feedback when the performance is noted. Too often supervisors save up performance feedback for performance appraisals – by then it’s less effective.
  • Make sure feedback is genuinely sincere. Providing feedback cannot appear to be a chore. View it as your key coaching role.
  • Develop a habit of providing positive feedback. Look for successes. Appreciative inquiry can be a useful tool. Ask employees what is going right, and then use their answers to provide positive feedback.
  • Be fair. Milligan emphasizes, “Being fair is key to supervisory success.” For instance, when you have a friendly, positive interaction with an employee who is performing poorly, what message do you think he receives? Or, when you interact with an employee who is performing above expectations while you are in a bad mood, what message does he receive? When performance is below expectations, decide whether you need redirection or negative feedback. You cannot ignore sub-par performance – it’s not fair to the business, co-workers or the employee to allow someone to fail.

Two important questions

Human resource consultant Bob Milligan suggests that holding a review session with employees for 15-30 minutes each month is less formal – and often more beneficial – than an annual performance appraisal. These sessions create an ideal opportunity to provide appropriate positive, redirection or negative feedback. With a focus on two important questions, below is an informal agenda Milligan suggests using:

  • “What went really well in the last month?” This focuses on the positive and sets a great tone for the session. 
  • “What could be improved?” This does not put the employee on the defensive because it does not ask, “What went wrong?” Additionally, there should always be some form of input since there are always areas to improve. Supervisors may be amazed by what they learn and the resulting employee engagement.
  • Compare actual performance to expectations, and set expectations for the next month. Working with the employee to develop specific performance measures and expected goals for each month is the heart of this monthly review system. If a goal was not met, determine how to improve performance.
  • Discuss specific issues for the next month. Ask how the coaching session can be better next month. This helps make the system truly collaborative and allows for continuous improving.