Do you remember what our parents would say when we were children? “If you have nothing nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”

Perhaps, this is why so many of us struggle with giving and receiving feedback to the point that it makes us cringe. We’re so afraid of “losing face” and saying something that could potentially harm the relationship, that we’d rather keep it to ourselves. In the workplace, this can pose potential harm to not only the employee’s performance and outcomes, but also the business.

Managers must be able to have effective performance discussions with their employees and offer constructive feedback and guidance. Motivation plays a huge role in employee performance and outcomes, and managers must learn how to deliver feedback that motivates and empowers employees to improve their performance; not diminish their confidence.

“When employees are motivated, they’re immersed in their work, committed and productive,” says Roi Ben-Yehuda, CEO and founder of NextArrow. “They find real satisfaction in what they do, and bring that awesome, innovative energy to the table. Plus … it means less turnover and all those pesky costs that come with it.”

The good news is that feedback is a skill that can be learned. Giving feedback doesn’t have to be an awkward song and dance that leaves both parties feeling stressed and/or burned out. In this article, we’ll evaluate best practices to leading feedback discussions that empower employees to improve their performance.

Common Pitfalls When Giving Feedback

The first step to giving feedback that is both effective and uplifting as a manager is to recognize common pitfalls. Many leaders may like to think that they’re effective communicators, however, even the best of us can stumble when navigating difficult conversations. According to Dr. Kristal Walker, CPTM, senior vice president of human resources at Sweetwater Sound and a Training Industry Courses instructor, one of the most common pitfalls leaders make when offering feedback is having insufficient context to the situation.

“So often, leaders react to certain situations rather than respond with appropriate consideration for the entire scenario at question,” Dr. Walker says. “This could result in leaders solving symptoms rather than root causes. It could also result in more vague or general feedback, leaving the employee confused about what really needs to improve, further hindering desired performance.” Managers must ask the right questions to better understand the situation and deliver feedback that will motivate employees to work better.

Another common pitfall is lack of empathy when giving feedback. When leaders provide feedback with “lack of empathy, demeaning or disrespectful language, and lack of emotional intelligence … it only makes the employee experience worse,” Dr. Walker says. Empathy is an important ingredient when not only delivering feedback, but also when communicating with others period. When employees feel like their manager understands their perspective and emotions, they’ll be more enticed to actively listen to the feedback and apply it to their work.

Motivational Feedback for Employees

Today’s employees need to feel a sense of personal value in their roles. Employees’ confidence stems from the value they provide to their team and organization, explains Carrie Missele, practice lead of learning and development at 10Pearls and public speaker. The best way to communicate this value is through having feedback discussions.

Leaders should be clear with employees that they are a valuable member of the team and that’s why you’re giving them feedback, Missele says. Feedback discussions can work to motivate employees by giving them a clear understanding of the strengths they bring to the team and behaviors that can be improved to help the individual and business function better.

When it comes to delivering motivational feedback to employees, it’s important to understand these four best practices:

1. Future-focused feedback.

Constructive feedback not only focuses on something that a person can change, but also advises them on the steps to take to change and grow. For managers to give feedback that motivates, they must ensure that it’s future focused. “The whole point of [giving] feedback is to affect future behavior so people don’t have a consequence down the road,” Missele explains. An ideal way to do this is with effective goal setting.

Managers can work with the employee to create and set goals that are achievable and realistic, like specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and time-bound (SMART) goals, to support them in this behavior change. Ben-Yehuda explains that managers can also provide training opportunities or assist in aligning the employee’s job with meaningful opportunities to build motivation. These opportunities can help employees stay engaged and invested in the organization.

2. Focus on the behavior — not the person.

For feedback to be helpful and empowering, it must also focus on the behavior that you want to change, and not on changing the person. “Effective feedback focuses on the behavior and the impact of that behavior. Managers often make the mistake when they focus on the actual, personal attributes of the person,” Missele shares. “It’s not about tearing apart their personality … [but instead] sharing something observed.”

By providing context to the feedback and then gaining the employee’s perspective, Ben-Yehuda explains that managers can create genuine dialogue that builds motivation. “We know from research that when the feedback is contextualized, people are more likely to buy into it, and more likely to be motivated to change their behavior.” Practicing empathy can also help managers become more considerate and understanding of the employee’s perspective and feelings when delivering feedback.

3. Clear is kind.

For feedback to be helpful, it must also be clear and to the point. For starters, this means doing away with the “feedback sandwich.” Missele shares that when it comes to the dreaded feedback sandwich, “Most people feel uneasy as soon as you come at them with something … people know what’s coming and they’re bracing for the feedback.” Instead of being beneficial, the feedback sandwich can automatically put employees on the defense as they sit in anticipation.

Instead, managers should be kind and direct. According to Missele, here are some effective ways to jumpstart a feedback conversation:

  • “Hey, there’s something I observed ….”
  • “I want to talk with you about the impact of that behavior. Let’s brainstorm ways that we can adjust.”

4. Find moments for positive feedback.

Giving constructive feedback to employees might be less unnerving if we found pockets in the workday to share positive observations and notes. “We’re always so focused and nervous about giving constructive feedback that we don’t often say, ‘hey, great job in that meeting’ or ‘hey, I really love how you handled that tricky question,’” Missele shares. That way, you can build rapport and trust with your team, which can make it easier to have difficult conversations.

Moving Forward

Giving feedback doesn’t have to be a scary process. Feedback is not only an important part of the development process, and necessary for behavior change, but also an essential ingredient to building meaningful connections with your employees. Effective feedback motivates employees to collaborate with their team, contribute toward business success and perform at their best.