How to Give Feedback to Employees: 5 Ways to Reduce the Stress

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Your Brain at Work" by David Rock. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Should feedback be given in public? What kind of feedback does a new employee need? What impact does feedback have on the emotional part of the brain?

Feedback is inherently stressful. Criticism usually comes from an authority figure who has the power to make changes in your life. Even if the criticism is intended to be constructive, an employee’s brain is going to immediately prepare the body for the threat of a major change.

Continue reading for David Rock’s advice on how to give feedback to employees in a way that reduces stress.

#1: Regularly Provide Positive Feedback

In Rock’s discussion of how to give feedback to employees, he explains how the brain works. He says that the brain interprets positive feedback as things that are stable or even better than expected. Positive feedback also generates toward emotions, so the recipient will receive a dopamine boost, which can also increase energy and motivation. 

(Shortform note: Positive feedback should be genuine and not seen only as a way to buffer negative criticism. Psychologists say compliment sandwiches don’t work. A compliment sandwich is an attempt to buffer negative criticism by placing it in between two compliments. Formatting feedback this way actually leads to people becoming less receptive to positive feedback. Instead, it conditions people to expect negative criticism to follow the compliments each time, and people become distrustful of expressions of appreciation.)

(Shortform note: In Nine Lies About Work, authors Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall assert that corrective feedback may not be necessary in the workplace, as it inhibits learning because it sends people into flight-or-fight mode. Instead, they recommend that leaders focus on providing positive feedback by pointing out what employees are doing well. They recommend that if an employee asks for corrective feedback, the leader asks them to first think about what they’re doing right, which will prepare their brain to accept negative feedback.)

#2: Consider Public Positive Feedback

When people receive praise in front of their peers, it creates an even stronger dopamine response. However, Rock cautions that you must be careful using this method: Public positive feedback can sometimes backfire by eliciting an away response if another employee feels like they never receive recognition. Be deliberate in providing feedback to employees equally. 

(Shortform note: Although it takes extra time to ensure public feedback is consistent and equal, sharing positive recognition is becoming the norm in many companies. Business experts recommend creating a designated space for public praise, like on the company’s social media page or within a company newsletter.) 

#3: Normalize Learning Curves

One of the most significant pieces of feedback for an employee in a new position is reassurance that an adjustment period is normal. A new worker may feel uncertain about their role and stress about potential negative feedback. A leader can reduce these away emotions by offering empathy. For example, a mentor can say something like, “I got lost a couple of times when I first started, so don’t be hard on yourself if that happens to you.”

How To Get Past a Learning Curve

A learning curve at a new job is stressful and can lead to anxiety and disappointment. Initially, you’re learning a lot of new information or skills, and it seems like you’re improving rapidly. However, once you get into the nuances of your new responsibilities, the sense of improvement will slow down to a more normal—and thus gradual—rate. This natural shift in starting a new position can cause employees to develop imposter syndrome, doubting their fit for the position and even quitting before they fully acclimate to the job.  

Cognitive scientists suggest two ways to get through a learning curve:

Assume your company values learning. Most companies invest in training and want you to ask for help.This assumption gives you a more optimistic outlook and motivates you to keep trying.

Keep a log of your improvements. When everything is new, gains are noticeable, but you need to continue seeing your growth as the novelty wears off. A personal record of your accomplishments will help quell the doubts of imposter syndrome. 

#4: Focus on the Goal

When feedback consists of multiple ways the employee can do better, the conversation will center around the employee trying to defend themselves or feeling uncomfortable. Instead, Rock suggests asking the employee to reflect on how they can reach a specific goal. For example, if an employee routinely turns in work late, ask them how efficiency can be improved on projects. When you validate their solutions and add suggestions if needed, the employee feels more empowered in the evaluation.

(Shortform note: Psychologists say that it’s important to build trust before giving negative feedback. The receiver should believe that you have their best interest in mind and that your feedback is for their benefit. Once trust is established, experts also recommend that negative feedback be timely (given close to precipitating incident), concise (focused only on the feedback), and given without pre-judgment (listen to what the employee has to say about the issue.)

#5: Be Transparent

When feedback results in corrective measures, Rock says you should explain your reasoning and make sure the other party understands the full context of a situation. For example, if an employee is being put on an improvement plan for a series of mistakes, the leader must be clear in what needs to change and why the improvement plan is being established. The dissonance the brain experiences will abate if the employee understands the specific actions that led to the consequence and what they need to do in the future. 

Setting Clear Expectations for Feedback

Another way to be transparent is to define and separate the kinds of feedback you give. In Thanks For The Feedback, Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen explain that poor reactions to negative feedback are mostly due to a disconnect between giver and receiver. The recipient of criticism may feel like the feedback isn’t fair or isn’t accurate. Meanwhile, the person giving the feedback feels like their honesty and expertise aren’t being appreciated. A way to prevent a bad reaction is to set the expectation of what kind of feedback you’re giving. There are three types:

Evaluation: The recipient should expect to be measured against co-workers or company standards. This kind of feedback will most likely come with consequences if the behavior is not improved.

Education: The recipient should expect advice or suggestions for improvement. This kind of feedback is meant to encourage the employee to improve their performance without a threat of change to their status or position.

Appreciation: The recipient should expect recognition for their good work. 
How to Give Feedback to Employees: 5 Ways to Reduce the Stress

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  • How leaders can generate productive work environments
  • How to schedule your day around your brain's energy levels
  • Three steps to reactivate your creativity after a creative block

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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