Last updated January 23, 2024

As highlighted in the constructive feedback activity, the difference between effective vs ineffective feedback can really have an impact on how positive or negative the workplace environment is.

How you give feedback to employees, if done incorrectly, can quickly lead to decreasing morale. So let’s take a look at the differences between effective vs ineffective feedback at work.

Effective versus ineffective feedback
Taken from the Giving Feedback Training Materials

Effective Feedback in the Workplace

So what exactly is effective feedback and what are the characteristics of it, especially when talking about feedback between employees?

1. Clear Feedback

Clearly communicated feedback is feedback that is given without confusion and that allows no place for misunderstandings.

Some people might confuse clarity with being blunt or direct.

Provided you are polite and respectful, how blunt you can be, depends on a lot of things. For example, your relationship with a person and their personality.

Also, you need to consider the culture of belonging of the recipient.

In some cultures, it is good to be straight and direct. In other cultures, you need to be more careful as being too direct may lead the recipient to feel that they have lost face.

So, in these cultures, you will have to be more diplomatic while still making sure you put your points across with clarity.

2. Relevant Feedback

This means that feedback has to be relevant to the job that a person does and the goals that they should achieve as part of their job.

Also, feedback has to be relevant to the task or performance on which you are giving feedback.

For example, if an employee has a habit of interrupting other people while they speak at meetings and you want them to change this behavior, your feedback needs to focus on this.

There is no point in also talking about them always being late, for example, as this problem is not relevant to this particular issue, and it should be raised separately.

Otherwise, the risk is that the recipient of the feedback will feel overwhelmed and confused if you raise too many unrelated issues at the same time.

3. Feedback Given in a Timely Manner

Constructive feedback at work

There is a time and place for feedback, and this depends on the issues and the situation.

Most of the time, you will want to give feedback as soon as possible, before you and the other person forget the details of the situation. This applies to both giving positive and constructive feedback.

If you don’t want to give feedback in front of other people, you will have to wait until you can talk to the person you want to give feedback to alone.

However, do it as soon as possible.

4. Providing Specific Feedback

It is important to give as many details as possible, so people understand exactly what behavior you want to address.

For example, if an employee interrupts people while they are talking, instead of saying ‘I would appreciate if you did not interrupt your colleagues while they speak’, provide an example.

For instance, say, ‘This morning, during the team meeting, you kept interrupting Amy while she was talking about her team’s project. You were talking over her and interrupting her mid-sentence.’

Similarly, for positive feedback, you need to do the same. Instead, for example, of saying, ‘Great report’, say ‘Your report was a great summary of everything we discussed, and it laid out clearly what the next steps for action are’.

5. Give Honest Feedback

The aim of giving feedback should always be to honestly want to help the other person improve their behavior or to encourage good behavior.

It should never be about getting revenge or about wanting to manipulate somebody.

So, feedback should be as truthful and transparent as possible.

6. Task-Directed and Impersonal Feedback

Feedback should be based on a task or performance, not on personality.

So, for example, for giving positive feedback to someone who gave a good presentation, don’t say, ‘Well done, you are great’.

Instead, say something like ‘You have delivered a great presentation. Or, ‘you managed to explain such difficult concepts clearly and concisely’.

To somebody who does not talk at meetings, don’t say ‘You are too quiet at meetings’.

A statement like this implies that being quiet is a problem. Being quiet though may be a personality trait of that employee, who might be an introvert.

So, that person might feel that you think there is something wrong with them personally and they will not know what to do in the future, as you did not provide any guidance.

Instead, you can say something like ‘On Monday, during the meeting, I would like to hear from you more about the forecasts for the next year’s sales that you have been working on’.

This way you will focus on a specific task, rather than on personality, and you will give the employee some useful direction.

7. Targeted at Observable and Actionable Behavior

Avoid making inferences. Instead, target the behavior that you have observed.

  • An observation describes something you have seen yourself.
  • An inference is how you interpret what you have seen.

It is human nature to want to infer, so we can make sense of the world around us.

However, inferences can lead us to make wrong assumptions and you do not want that to happen when giving feedback.

If you base your feedback on what you infer and you get it wrong (as you often will), it will lead to conflict and upsets.

So, for example, Jim was late submitting a report and you assume that it was because he spent too much time surfing the Internet. In actual fact, you can’t be sure of that.

There may be other reasons why Jim was late with his report.

If instead, you observed him spending too much time surfing the Internet, you can address this issue with him.

8. Explains Reasons, Impacts, and the Way Forward When Giving Feedback

For feedback to be effective, you need to explain why a behavior needs to change or why it was good.

In particular, it is important to state the impact that the behavior had on other people, on the business, or on the recipient’s career.

For example, if somebody is always late for work let them know that this has a negative impact on the team.

Or, if someone seems distracted, explain that it makes you feel as though you did something wrong as a manager and that you would like to help.

In terms of positive feedback, if someone, for instance, went the extra mile with their work, explain how their attitude was invaluable in lifting the team’s morale.

Also, explain how you are going to move forward and give suggestions for the future. This is particularly useful for constructive feedback.

For example, if someone is late in delivering a project, explain that there are ways to spot roadblocks in advance and agree on ways to be able to do that in the future (e.g., being proactive in spotting problems, asking for help, etc.).

If you don’t explain the impact that their behavior had, the person may never know that their behavior was negative or that it was helpful.

Also, if you don’t address a way forward, the feedback will not be particularly useful.

Classroom lesson plans

9. Feedback Tailored to the Employee

Depending on if the employee is new to the job or is very experienced, they may need different levels and amounts of feedback.

Also, you may want to approach feedback differently according to their performance levels (i.e., high, adequate, or low performer).

High Performing Employee

A high performer is highly motivated and has promotion potential.

They will need positive feedback to get them motivated, but feedback needs to be specific, so they know exactly what they are doing well.

This will keep them thinking and engaged. If the feedback has to be constructive, keep it in a positive frame of mind.

Do not give too much feedback though as you don’t want to make them feel as if you are micromanaging them or that you are condescending.

Adequate Performing Employee

Adequate performers are doing well and maybe they have been with the company for a long time. However, they are not necessarily striving for promotion.

They are satisfied with their job, and they want to keep things this way as they may have other priorities outside work.

With them, what you want to do is keep them motivated by showing appreciation. Let them know that you and the company appreciate the good work they do.

You don’t need to change their performance, but you need to provide periodic recognition to them.

Poor Performing Employees

Poor performers are not doing well. These are the employees that need the highest amount of feedback and will take up the largest part of your time and effort.

You need to find out why their performance is poor. Do they have enough support? Did they receive the right training?

Did you give them clear goals? Do they have problems outside work that are sapping their energy? The reasons could be many. Once you assess the reasons, you need to give them specific and frequent feedback.

New Employees

Finally, new employees need feedback as part of their onboarding (or induction) process.

They need to find out about the company’s rules and culture, they need to know what their goals are and what is expected of them.

New employees need feedback in the form of guidance. If they don’t get it, they are more likely to leave.

Ineffective Feedback

Bad and ineffective feedback

Ineffective feedback has the opposite characteristics of effective feedback.

1. Unclear

Feedback that is communicated badly, and is confusing will be unclear for the receiver.

2. Trivial

Trivial feedback is inaccurate or irrelevant.

3. Generic

Not specific enough to be of any value.

4. Condescending

This is a risk, particularly if you are trying to give constructive feedback to an experienced employee or to a peer.

You can certainly give feedback in these cases, but you need to be particularly careful of how you word it.

5. Blaming

Feedback that comes across as personal can make the recipient feel that they are being unjustly blamed.

To avoid this, as we discussed earlier, feedback needs to be task-oriented and impersonal.

6. Shaming

Similar to the point above, shaming does nothing at all to help the confidence of the employee.

7. Personality focused

If you target someone’s personality they will feel under attack. This will further dilute the working relationship/s.

8. Manipulative

This is when you are giving insincere feedback in order to achieve your own goals.

9. Used for retribution

Feedback should never be given as a form of revenge.

Feedback Training Course Materials
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Dr Valeria Lo Iacono