Need to deliver some feedback but not sure how to avoid an awkward situation? Here’s how to offer meaningful and actionable feedback that employees appreciate.

Delivering constructive feedback to employees is a top-tier leadership skill. Done well, it inspires staff to improve their performance and take ownership of their careers. Done badly (or not at all), it can cause team members to lose focus and motivation. Here are six tips for delivering professional feedback that makes a positive difference.

1. do your prep

It’s essential to show the person receiving the feedback that you’ve given careful thought to the issue. If it helps, make yourself a crib sheet of what you want to communicate, including how the employee’s actions or behavior impacted the organization and what they should do differently in the future.

If the discussion is about a specific incident, make sure you gather all the facts, including who was involved and what happened.

2. get specific

For feedback to be meaningful and actionable, it needs to be detailed. Vague language (“You need to write better reports”) leaves the employee unclear about your expectations. On the other hand, clear language (“I noticed your reports were missing this key section”) leaves no doubt in the employee’s mind about where improvements need to be made.

3. provide context

Explain how the employee’s actions affect your team or the organization’s business goals. For example, if an employee is a poor timekeeper, you might say, “When you’re late for our staff meetings, it impacts all of us because we can’t find out what progress you’ve made in your areas of work.”

Also, remember to focus on the employee’s actions, rather than specific personality traits. Instead of saying, “Your indecisiveness is causing a real problem,” try, “When you put off making those key decisions, it impacts our targets and gives our competitors an advantage.”

4. show empathy

Chances are that an employee who’s just been given feedback might react defensively or appear resistant. To avoid escalating the situation, slow down and think about what they might be feeling — perhaps it’s surprise or dismay when they realize how their actions have affected the company. Give them space to process your feedback, and don’t expect everyone to respond to criticism in the same way.

5. make it a dialogue

To elicit a positive response to your feedback, show that you respect the employee’s point of view. An open-ended question (“I noticed that you’ve fallen behind on your audit schedule. What’s up?”) can start a productive conversation. An ultimatum (“You need to catch up with your audits by the end of the week, or the whole team will suffer”) is more likely to kick off a blame game.

6. follow up

Following up on the initial conversation shows your employee that you care about their success. Consider scheduling a “feedback review,” making sure you give your report a reasonable amount of time to make measurable changes. If you see improvement leading up to the meeting, make a positive remark so the employee knows that you’ve noticed — it will motivate them to keep up the great work.

Learning how to deliver meaningful feedback will help you build a work culture based on trust and honesty. For more management tips, on topics ranging from post-pandemic office etiquette to remote worker performance reviews, continue browsing our business insights blog.