Giving Employee Feedback: Tips for Managers

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Carrots and Sticks Don't Work" by Paul Marciano. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Looking for advice on giving employee feedback but don’t have a lot of time to spare? Why is giving supportive feedback so important?

Many managers struggle to give good, constructive criticism to their employees outside of performance reviews. Paul Marciano, the author of Carrots and Sticks Don’t Work, says that managers should give feedback immediately rather than months later to improve employee performance.

Here are some tips on how to give employee feedback that will help your team members grow.

The Importance of Supportive Feedback

Managers should give employee feedback with the mindset of a coach: I want you to be successful. This viewpoint makes employees feel cared for and lowers defensiveness (compared to the situation if the manager were just berating the employee).

80% of feedback should be positive and reinforce behavior, while 20% should be about improving performance (constructive feedback)

Give feedback often. Lack of support signals to the employee that she doesn’t matter much and there’s no hope for her. This can set off a vicious cycle of disengagement and confirmation bias by the manager (“I knew Tim was no good — look at how disengaged he is. I’m not going to waste time on him.”). 

Good constructive feedback comes quickly after a problem begins. This wastes fewer resources from suffering the problem and makes it less awkward to point out (as opposed to giving feedback on a problem 6 months earlier).

If you are giving employee feedback often enough, your performance reviews should not contain any surprises. Some managers give so little feedback, positive or constructive, that employees are left in the dark about how they’re doing. Then in end-of-year reviews, the manager shows up with a problem from 8 months ago. How does this feel fair to the employee?

Do not pile up all the bad news to unleash all at once. Would a coach wait until the season’s over to tell his team how much they could improve? 

Actionables for Supportive Feedback

  • Weight your feedback to 80% positive, 20% constructive.
  • Make the feedback specific. Help make clear what the actionable is, so it’s not just perceived as your complaining.
  • Give positive feedback in the area the employee has the most interest or pride. If you don’t know what this is, ask what it is.
  • Encourage reciprocal feedback from team members.
  • Provide coaching within 24 hours of becoming aware of the problem. Don’t wait. Make it “in the moment.”
  • Follow up with employees after giving feedback to reinforce the positive change and hold them accountable for improvement.
  • Message feedback with powerless communication, or not aggressively or assertively. Instead of saying “you should have done this,” ask, “can I give you a suggestion?” Even better, ask them to reflect on a suboptimal outcome, and how they could have done better in that situation.
  • Hold a workshop for employees to learn how to give feedback to one another.
  • Always make feedback about the behavior, not about the person. No “you have a bad attitude.”
  • Don’t make a “shit sandwich” where you start off with one positive, one constructive, one positive. This feels too artificial, and employees will feel you’re merely saying the positive feedback out of formality. 
  • When delivering notably critical feedback, take extra care to message it in a supportive manner.
  • When you’re given feedback yourself, don’t get defensive. Listen attentively and ask for advice on how to do better.
Giving Employee Feedback: Tips for Managers

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Here's what you'll find in our full Carrots and Sticks Don't Work summary:

  • How to motivate your employees and teammates to do a better job
  • How to know if you're a terrible manager
  • Why the carrot and stick motivation model doesn't work anymore—and what to do instead

Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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