How to give better feedback to employees

The art of delivering feedback may not be top of mind for IT leaders. But it's crucial to individual and team success – especially at times of rapid change
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Giving well-timed, appropriate, and constructive feedback to employees has never been more important. “Learning requires a continuous process of action, feedback, and repetition. It’s how the brain works and it’s how organizations work,” says Peter Hirst, associate dean of Executive Education at MIT Sloan School of Management. “The more volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous the work environment is, the more people need to learn and continuously hone new skills.”  

[ See our related article: 4 habits of lifelong learners. ]

Effective and actionable feedback is an essential component of the learning loop – and key to the long-term success of an individual career, a team, or an enterprise.

“CIOs and IT leaders have an especially challenging management role when it comes to giving feedback,” Hirst says. “Often, their staff are in their roles and valued because of their technical knowledge and skills. Their people skills may be less honed, and it is all too easy for feedback about their work or performance to be heard as criticism of their technical abilities. That tends to trigger defensive mechanisms and worse, cause people to learn avoidance rather than constructive confrontation.” 

Yet, the art of delivering feedback is one that may not be top of mind for IT leaders. As a result, some dysfunctional approaches and common mistakes persist. Let’s look at four:

1. Right feedback, wrong time

One of the most prevalent problems in feedback delivery is timing. “Effective feedback needs to be timely,” says Hirst. “The human mind is not good at connecting causes and effects that are too far separated in time. Too often, feedback comes far too late for it to do much good. In the worst-case scenario, the IT leader saves it for the employees’ annual performance review.

2. Not actionable

Providing feedback that employees either don’t understand, are unable to act upon, or can’t readily learn from is another prevalent pitfall. Feedback must be clear and actionable. “A common mistake is to do all the talking instead of also listening attentively, and having a directed, purposeful conversation about the issue at hand,” says Hirst. IT leaders can also guide the employees towards helpful strategies, tactics, and resources.

3. Blame game

The best feedback givers take a collaborative approach to figuring out what “we” can we do differently to achieve better outcomes in future.

One of the most fatal feedback flaws is when IT leaders or managers are subjective, judgmental, and blaming. Those approaches are downright toxic, according to Hirst. “Effective feedback is objective, inquisitive, and future-oriented.” The best feedback givers take a collaborative approach to figuring out what “we” can we do differently to achieve better outcomes in future. Presenting facts and data, inviting reflection and discussion, and acknowledging points of agreement and disagreement will yield better outcomes.

4. Not enough positive reinforcement

In fact, feedback is rarely effective if the only feedback a CIO offers is critical. “The granddaddy of all failure modes in providing feedback is not doing the groundwork of providing positive feedback and praise when it is deserved,” says Hirst. 

A good rule of thumb is that at least half of all feedback should be recognition and positive reinforcement of good work and behaviors.

How to give feedback to entire teams

When it comes to providing feedback to teams, there are two different feedback scenarios to consider. The first is equivalent to providing feedback to individuals – going over with the team how something went, what was learned, and how things could go better in the future. 

The other more difficult situation is providing feedback on the internal dynamics or functioning of a team – one of leadership’s greatest challenges, according to Hirst. “A high performing team is much more than the sum of its parts, and understanding when, how and why a team is functioning well is an essential leadership skill,” says Hirst. “This can involve providing individual feedback privately. But the most effective thing a leader can do is [help] the team to generate and process feedback itself as part of its fundamental operating system.”

Similarly, the CIO plays an important role in ensuring that the other leaders throughout the IT organization hone their feedback skills, too. Using processes like 360-degree surveys or anonymous suggestion boxes, or hiring leadership coaches can help – or sometimes backfire.  

“The best way to know that your direct reports are providing good feedback and being great leaders and managers to their teams, is to model those behaviors in your own leadership and management practices,” says Hirst. “And be accessible. If the only time your people’s people get to interact with you is when there is a problem (with their manager, or a colleague, or  a customer) then you will be the last to know there’s a problem, and too late to provide the most helpful feedback to your immediate team.”

[ Want to give your team a greater sense of urgency? Get our new resource: Fast Start Guide: Creating a sense of urgency, with John Kotter. ]

Stephanie Overby is an award-winning reporter and editor with more than twenty years of professional journalism experience. For the last decade, her work has focused on the intersection of business and technology. She lives in Boston, Mass.


It's so important that employees know how good or not good of a job they are doing. Great article<a href=““>.</a>