“Hey, do you have time for a quick chat?” your manager asks.

Oh no. Knees weak, heart heavy, you saunter into your boss’s office, your entire corporate life flashing before your eyes. There was that project last week that could have gone better. You did book an Airbnb the other day during work hours.

What could this possible be about?

We have a visceral reaction even to the thought of maybe, possibly, sort of receiving feedback. And yet, paradoxically, we also place a high value in knowing where we stand and how we could improve. We want more feedback, not less.

As a manager, giving feedback and guidance to employees is a key part of how you help your team improve, even when it doesn’t feel very good.

But not all feedback is created equal. Feedback that is vague, or ill-timed, or ill-delivered can have the opposite of its intended effect, making employees feel undervalued or disengaged.

It’s not hard to give feedback, but it is hard to give it well. As a manager, just remember that you should always follow the rules of the SEA :anchor:.

By that, we mean your feedback should be Specific, Empathetic, and Actionable. Let’s dive deeper.

Specific

When it comes to fiving great feedback, specificity is key. Your feedback should be clear, concise, and use concrete examples to show exactly what behavior or action you are referring to. For example:

Not specific: Sometimes, the way you talk in meetings rubs people the wrong way.
Specific: In this morning’s meeting, you interrupted two of your colleagues when they were trying to share their ideas. It made it seem like you didn’t value their opinions, which is harmful to the dynamic of the team.

It’s also easier to be specific if you give feedback immediately.

“If you see it, say it,” says Forbes contributor Cristi Hedges, and we agree. Whether giving positive reinforcement or constructive feedback, try not to wait too long before giving feedback. The longer you wait, the harder it is to recall precise examples and be specific.

Remember that, when giving feedback, it’s as much about what you don’t say as what you do say. Focusing exclusively on what an employee did wrong even if they did many things right can be confusing and hurtful if an employee put in a great deal of work.

Similarly, focusing only on what they did right rather than being constructive can give them a false sense of their own abilities and limit their growth over time.

Empathetic

Very few people like hearing that they’re not doing a good job, especially when they’ve poured their heart and soul into a project. That’s why, as a manager, it’s important to have empathy when giving constructive feedback to a team member.

As you’re preparing to talk to your employee, try taking a few minutes to put yourself in their shoes. This is especially important if you’re feeling frustrated with them, because it can help diffuse those frustrations so they don’t negatively affect your tone of voice or body language when you’re approaching the issue with them.

Most people are fighting battles you can’t see, so you never know what may be happening in their personal life. Rather than jumping to conclusions, pause and think deeply about how your words will affect this employee’s sense of self-worth.

Without sugarcoating anything or dancing around the subject, is there a way that you can frame the feedback that is compassionate, personal, and shows that you really care?

Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about Wendy Mass

Think about how you like to receive feedback. Think back to a time when a manager gave you feedback that really hurt you. What could that manager have done better? Think about a time when a manager gave you feedback that really motivated you. What was so good about their delivery?

Recalling how it felt when you’ve receive feedback can help you prepare to give feedback to others. You’ve felt the harsh sting of criticism. You’ve felt the warm glow of recognition.

You know it can’t be glowing all the time, but being empathetic will ensure that your constructive feedback leaves employees feeling excited and motivated rather than burnt and unappreciated.

Actionable

More often than not, employees have a pretty decent sense of what they’re doing right and wrong. They’re just not necessarily sure what to do about it. That’s where you come in.

For each piece of constructive feedback, there should be at least one associated action and outcome. Imagine you’ve just given a piece of specific, empathetic feedback to an employee. For example:

“Jade, when you were presenting in today’s meeting, I could tell that you put tons of effort into preparing and practicing your talk. Your slides were engaging and informative, and the feedback you got from your peers was all positive. I feel like the opening was very strong, and the middle really adds to the narrative, but I think you could end on a more powerful note.”

That could be the extent of your feedback. You could leave it at that and see what the employee comes up with. But to be actionable, it would be helpful to take it a step further and build some actions together with the employee.

Start by asking them what they think they could do to make the ending more powerful. Perhaps they already have ideas, but were pressed for time so couldn’t include them. Perhaps they’ve been thinking the same thing but aren’t even sure where to start. Or maybe they totally disagree with you (that’s okay too!).

Once you’ve established what a “powerful ending” looks like, assign some actions and outcomes to that feedback. Let’s say they’re giving the presentation again at next week’s board meeting. That serves as a clear timeline for improvement, so start there and work back.

Maybe you and Jade will set aside some time next week to work through three potential endings to see which one lands best. Or perhaps, Jade will rearrange some of her other priorities to make time for working on the presentation more this week.

Whatever you decide together, Jade should leave the feedback session feeling clear on exactly what to do next in order to improve.

Finally, let them know the outcome of these actions, and what impact this will have on your team or organization.

In the case of Jade, it’s important to let her know what is riding on her presentation (without putting undue pressure on her), and showcase how vital an ending is to a good presentation.

Another approach is to ask the employee themselves to come up with their own ideas to improve. Rather than offering up a plan for them, ask them how they might approach their own development. Allowing them to guide their own growth can help them feel more accountable, and take ownership more easily.

Ultimately, what matters is that your feedback does not happen in isolation. By being specific, empathetic, and actionable, employees will know exactly what they need to work on, why it’s important, and what steps they can take to improve.

They know what success should look like, and why it’s important.

Enjoy articles like this one?

Subscribe to Hazel Blog and get hand-crafted, deeply researched essays and interviews delivered every few weeks.

Subscribe to Hazel Blog →

Tailoring your style

Now that you know the rules of the SEA, you’re almost ready to dive right in. But wait! Not every employee likes to receive feedback in the same way.

Great coaches and managers know how to tailor their feedback to the individuals on their team. Some people prefer structured, formal feedback, while others prefer more informal, on-the-fly guidance and advice.

Some people may prefer to receive written feedback, while others prefer it verbally. Many people like their feedback to be very personal and positive, while others want only the dirt on how they can get better with a no-nonsense approach.

In order to know how your team members prefer to receive feedback, you’re going to have to ask them. Sit down one-on-one or send a message over email or chat, and find out how you can deliver your feedback in a way that helps them best.

Giving feedback to employees doesn’t have to a scary experience for anyone on your team. Don’t wait for the dreaded annual performance review, or even quarterly ones. Give feedback know, give it often, and give it well. If you do, you’ll watch your team grow and improve with your guidance.