Four Secrets for Giving Employees Constructive Feedback: How to Put Employees at Ease, Build Accountability and Give Feedback by Asking, Not Telling Printer friendly format

By Myra Golden
Consultant to this Program

Asian man talk to a manThe goal of constructive feedback is to be constructive—to give feedback someone can really use to make improvements. Here are four secrets to giving constructive feedback in such a way that the employee is receptive, held accountable, and best supported for making improvements.  

1. Feedback is like a well-made sandwich

Your feedback will be far better received if you build a “feedback sandwich.” The first slice of bread should put your employee at ease. Studies have found that starting from a positive point makes the listener more receptive to constructive feedback. The meat of your sandwich is the problem you’re addressing. State your observation clearly and concisely. Top off the sandwich with a dialogue that gets your employee involved in solution finding. 

2. Don’t allow the “Twinkie Defense”

In 1979 a defense team successfully argued that their client, accused of murder, suffered from diminished capacity as result of changing his diet from healthy foods to Twinkies and other sugary food. The defendant was only convicted of voluntary manslaughter. From this case forward, this defense has been coined the “Twinkie Defense.” 

In court, the “Twinkie Defense” tries to throw the jury off the trail by blaming the defendant’s actions on something elsehe ate too many Twinkies, for instance, and was on a sugar high when he killed/robbed/raped/molested and therefore was not responsible for his actions. You may have encountered the Twinkie Defense with your employees: “I was late because traffic was unusually heavy and then when I got here the elevator was broken, therefore my tardiness is not my fault.” Decide that employees will be held accountable for their actions and don’t allow them to hide behind the Twinkie Defense. In response to the Twinkie Defense, you respond with, “This is about individual responsibilitynot trying to hide behind excuses.” 

3. Ask, don’t tell

Let’s face it. Most employees don’t like constructive feedback. So don’t tell them what they’ve done wrong. Ask them to tell you how they see their performance. In my practice, we use a four-step formula for giving feedback:

Step One: Ask a question.
Step Two: Listen to the answer.
Step Three: Repeat steps One and Two. (not really a “new” step)
Step Four: Offer “ideas” as needed.

If you were coaching a Customer Service Representative using a randomly recorded phone call as data, you might apply the formula this way:  

Manager: “How did that call feel to you?”

Rep: “Pretty good.”

Manager: “Why do you describe the call as ‘pretty good?’ as opposed to ‘you wowed the customer’ or ‘it was a bad call’?

Rep: “I used the proper greeting, called the customer by name and covered all of the basics. I just wouldn’t say I emotionally connected with the customer and I didn’t go above and beyond.”

Manager: “Can you think of anything you could have done to make an emotional connection or go above and beyond?”

Using this formula, the employee engages in self-coaching. Self-observation and finding solutions on one’s own is a powerful behavior changing mechanism.  

4. Gain commitment for performance improvement.

Wrap up feedback discussions by asking the employee, “What specific steps will you take over the next five days to improve in this area?” Write down what the employee states and repeat it back to him or her. Summarize the session by reiterating strengths and offering a vote of confidence that he or she can improve in the identified area.

Try these four strategies the next time you give an employee constructive feedback. When you do, you’ll find that both you and your employee are more at ease, and your employee will be better positioned to make positive behavioral change.


Sources cited:

Four-Step Formula for Giving Feedback taken from “Call Center Coaching” article posted on in 2003.