The purpose of giving employees performance feedback is a positive and beneficial one, done for all of the right reasons.

Yet, giving-and receiving—feedback is one of the most difficult, if not the most difficult, workplace conversation managers and employees will ever have.

It’s ironic, because the real objective or purpose of performance feedback conversations is to help employees:

  • develop
  • get the benefit of what their manager knows
  • gain beneficial insights, knowledge, and skills
  • improve their performance
  • become more confident and competent
  • increase their value to their manager, the organization, customers, and ultimately themselves and their careers

Yet many feedback conversations are uncomfortable and unproductive. And end with both people experiencing them as unpleasant, and not feeling good about their conversation, the results, or even each other. 

Managers often delay these, fearing they’ll get negative employee reactions,including defensiveness, anger, arguments, a lack of cooperation, spotty performance, and a strained work relationship.

Employees often fear them, thinking they’re going to be blamed, criticized, put down, or disparaged. 

They may feel diminished and discouraged, believing their manager doesn’t focus on, or appreciate, the good work that they do. (Which is often true, as most managers typically deliver far more corrective than positive feedback).

When this happens enough times, employees begin to doubt the value and importance of the work they do; their capabilities; and how they feel at work.

Irony #2 is that most employees want performance feedback, especially gen x and gen y. They want corrective feedback to improve their work and performance, learn more, and improve their chances of being promoted, or hired by other firms.

They also want positive feedback so they know what they’re doing well; can feel good about it; and gain increased confidence and a positive outlook about their work.

What Happens: Managers

Managers largely contribute to ineffective feedback conversations because they don’t have adequate skills, including what to say and how to say it; ineffectively handle defensiveness; don’t establish good work relationships with employees; and deliver far more corrective than positive feedback.

What Happens: Employees

Employees largely contribute to ineffective feedback conversations because they’ve previously been damaged by them.

Parents; teachers; principals; coaches; and former bosses are responsible for most of this, some of them unwittingly. 

In addition, some employees admittedly arrive with a poor work ethic; they didn’t receive much feedback or “upbringing” at home; or were raised by parents who avoided giving them necessary, and at times unpleasant, feedback, thinking they were being positive parents, and doing their children a favor.

Here’s an example of just how sensitive some employees have become conditioned about receiving feedback, and one you’ve likely encountered.

As soon as an employee realizes that you intend to give them feedback, they quickly become defensive because the very fact that you want to talk with them must mean they did something wrong or bad, their work is inferior, and by extension, they must be inferior, too. Sound familiar?

Much of what creates this are two things: 1) having been harshly criticized a number of times instead of being given helpful feedback, 2) and hardly, if ever, receiving any positive feedback.

It’s not necessarily you; it’s their past experiences that are being called up and responded to.

Our purpose is not to be psychologists with employees, but to understand why employees respond negatively to receiving feedback, and effectively work around this.

Even when they don’t have such sensitivity, few employees feel good when they know they’re about to receive performance or corrective feedback.

Our goal is to better deal with employees who are sensitive, and make receiving feedback more of a positive experience for all employees.

How can we do this?

It’s a lot easier to get things done when people agree in advance how they’ll do them.

Most managers know they need to give their employees feedback.
Most employees know their managers need to give them feedback.
Since both of them know this, let’s have managers and employees create feedback agreements in advance that both of them agree with.
For this newsletter, we’ll use an abbreviated skill to help employees express how they’d like to be given feedback, and to help you express how you’d like them to receive it.

The purpose is to have a conversation-often with some dialogue, discussion, and perhaps a little “friendly negotiation,” but not something a manager reads off as a script and is done with. 

  1. Share Your Feedback Goal as a Manager
    • For example; Manager: “I want to be the type of manager who encourages her people, and helps them improve and develop their performance and careers.
  2. Share Your Performance Feedback Goal
    • Step #1: I may need to give you some performance feedback:  

      Manager: “Sometimes, I may need to give you feedback about things I’d like you to improve, or do differently that will be helpful to you.”

    • Step #2: I have 2 goals about giving you performance feedback:

      Manager: “I want you to feel okay about receiving it, but never feel criticized or put down.”

      Manager: “And I’d like you to let me know if you a concern about what I’ve said so we can resolve it.”

  3. Ask the Employee How to Give Them Feedback
    • Step #1: Ask how: 

      Manager: “How would you like me to give you feedback so that you feel okay when you receive it?”

      “What should I be sure to say and do?”

      “What should I be sure not to say and do?”

  4. Confirm what you’ve both agreed to:
    • Manager: “Okay, as discussed here’s what I agree to do:
      • talk with you in private
      • use a calm tone of voice
      • share my concern and what I’d like you to do instead
      • give you an opportunity to respond

    • Manager: “In turn, you’ll:
      • listen and work to be receptive to what I’m saying
      • will let me know if you have a concern about the feedback
      • will make improvements and ask for help if you need it

    • Manager: How does this seem to you?” Or, “Okay with you?”

List these items; both the manager and the employee keep a copy of them. Refer to them before giving feedback, then follow them. Then ask the employee how well you followed them. And let her or him know how well they followed them.

This “after the feedback conversation” doesn’t occur in most organizations, yet I wish it did because it helps both people become more competent.

Notice how the employee provides the manager with some feedback about what s/he is doing well in giving the employee feedback as agreed to earlier. 


This makes the conversation more of a dialogue, and the manager and employee more of a performance team, which in effect they are.

While new employees are a logical choice to use this skill with, also use it with your existing employees. You may be surprised at what you learn in a good way.

It’ll take time for employees to become comfortable using this process, which is okay.

And think about this: isn’t this how you’d like your own boss to work with you about the performance feedback she or he gives you?

Reducing the amount of negativity and fear often associated with performance feedback conversations improves manager and employee performance and their combined results.

It’s what happens in more productive workplaces. 


 Free people to communicate & do more productive work.

Conversations at Work helps people in organizations have the workplace
conversations they’ve been avoiding—and improve productivity.

Contact Us to Ask a Question

We'll respond to your message promptly.

    Ask a Question