How to give effective feedback in the workplace

Do you know how to give effective feedback in the workplace? This article by Christine Bau explores why we fear giving feedback and offers some practical tips on how to give feedback without offending your colleagues.‍

June 20, 2023

Christine Bau
People Focused

Knowing how to give effective feedback in the workplace is a critical skill for all professionals, yet it's something many of us find difficult. This article by Christine Bau explores why we fear giving feedback and offers some practical tips on how to give feedback without offending your colleagues.

Have you ever felt that you really needed to give someone feedback only to find yourself rationalising why now isn’t a good time to deal with the situation? Maybe you told yourself you had too much on your plate and wanted to wait so you could ‘give the conversation the attention it deserves’, or you convinced yourself that things might get better if you just gave the person more time to settle into the role or become more familiar with the systems and processes.

No matter how senior or experienced we are at giving feedback, or how much benefit we know that it could provide, many managers shy away from it. Data indicates that even though roughly 87% of employees want to ‘be developed’ in their job, only a third report actually receiving the feedback they need to engage and improve.

Why is that the case? It’s simple really – a fear that giving feedback might threaten harmony.  

Why do we fear giving feedback?

The survival of our ancestors was largely dependent on appeasing group members.  Failure to do so meant exclusion from the group and in turn, a dangerous and isolated existence in the wild.  While most of us no longer need to fend off predators, our brain is still very much attuned to social threats and the impact giving feedback may have on our relationship with others.  It’s this fear about how the feedback will be received that makes us want to run away and avoid giving it rather than leaning into the pain.

So, if we unconsciously experience a heightened sense of threat every time we need to provide feedback, how do we ensure that we, as managers, have meaningful conversations with our direct reports that genuinely help them to grow and develop? How can we prevent the end of year review from becoming more than a polite series of statements with few suggestions for real improvement? Or conversely, how do we avoid it from becoming a train wreck that only serves to heighten the sense of threat and our dislike for performance reviews?

How to reduce your fear of giving feedback

If you want to reduce your fear of giving feedback, focus on minimising threat.

Our brain is constantly scanning the environment for threats – it’s the brain’s number one priority.  The way our brain determines if a situation is safe or unsafe is by taking into consideration four key factors that form the acronym CORE*:

  • Certainty – we feel safe when we can predict the future.  When we can’t, we often assume the worst-case scenario.
  • Options – the extent to which we feel we have choice.   We would rather have bad choices than none.  
  • Reputation – our relative importance to others and understanding where we sit in the hierarchy.
  • Equity - our sense that things are fair and equitable.  

How to give feedback without causing offence

While we can’t eliminate our fear of giving feedback, we can reduce it by considering these four factors.  For example:

  • If you are facilitating a review meeting, the simple act of sharing a meeting agenda prior to the review discussion will create a level of certainty which decreases the level of fear experienced by the employee and employer.
  • By asking the employee what two things they want feedback on you give them autonomy and at the same time gain a level of clarity around where to focus the discussion, which encourages the employee to be more open to the feedback.
  • When you invite an employee to complete a self-assessment in relation to their performance or provide them with positive feedback, you enhance their sense of reputation.
  • By being transparent as possible and articulating how and why decisions are made you create a sense of equity, which in turn reduces the sense of fear experienced by the employee.

While there is no doubt that feedback is challenging, it’s vital to the growth of employees and the businesses that they are part of.  If you truly want to leverage the talent within your team, maximise the quality of your feedback conversation and the performance review process by focusing on minimising threat.  

About the Author

Christine Bau is an experienced HR Consultant and qualified coach, who has spent her career working in professional services.  She works with organisations to improve the quality of employee – employer conversations and maximise employee engagement. To learn more, contact Christine.

About Performance Leader

Performance Leader helps your firm build a culture that engages, develops and rewards your partners and employees. Our market leading software is used by some of the world's leading professional firms. To learn more, talk to us or book a demo with our consulting & software team.

* CORE model for change in business, Jan Hills 5 November 2016

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