Feedback makes us better people — we’re just biologically wired to crave it. When it’s positive, it’s a shot of pure warmth that cossets us, making us feel happy and competent. When it’s negative, it can make us shrink down several sizes and examine our behaviours.
But feedback isn’t always easy to get right. Without structure, praise can become a platitude. Negative comments become a spring-loaded defence mechanism.
And sometimes, even leaders struggle with it, too.
“Earlier in my career, I can think of a few times when I haven’t given the most helpful feedback to my employees,” admitted Amy Spurling, founder and CEO of Compt. “I’ve said something like ‘great job’, and my employees have pushed me on what that means. But those moments have been important to help me adjust my approach, and learn what makes feedback more powerful.”
It’s good news for all of us, then, that feedback can be taught. Maximising its positive impact depends on creating the norms and processes that put trust, transparency, and empathy at its centre.
Qualities of Constructive Feedback
Feedback is a key driver of employee engagement. Understanding how we’re performing alongside our role expectations makes us feel more competent and satisfied at work.
“Feedback is data,” said Amanda Myton, a principal talent management practice lead from Lattice Advisory Services. “It’s integral to employee performance. But truly effective organisations aren’t just built on performance, they’re also built on trust.”
With the right structure and cultural environment, constructive feedback can become a powerful tool that inspires growth, nurtures employee engagement, and drives retention.
The trick is knowing what makes it effective in the first place.
“Good feedback is specific and quantifiable,” noted Spurling. “Bad feedback is similar to setting a New Year’s resolution to lose weight. That’s not quantifiable. It’s the same as telling an employee they need to step things up — it’s not something that an employee can put actions against.
“It’s far more impactful to give specific feedback that ties into goals,” she added. “Instead of saying ‘step it up’, you could say, ‘We need to respond to customer emails within 24 hours of being received’. That’s actionable and measurable — and the employee knows exactly what’s expected of them.”
According to recent research on feedback models, effective constructive feedback hinges on four key criteria:
- Specific: Specificity is critical for instilling behaviour change. Employees need specific details on the actions they took that contributed to the outcome.
- Timely: If feedback isn’t delivered in a timely manner, the details get a little hazy, making it harder to connect what we did to the result.
- Regular: Instilling regular feedback loops helps everyone stay aligned, fosters transparency, and means you can course-correct.
- Actionable: Feedback is most effective when it comes with a measurable, solutions-focused mindset that helps employees plan their next steps.
When feedback is vague or delayed, employees don’t know exactly how to connect their actions to an outcome. If it doesn’t come with actions, it’s hard to know how to improve.
And if it’s a once-a-year thing during the annual performance review, it doesn’t communicate to your employees that their growth is a key priority.
Understanding Good and Bad Feedback
Structure is the lynchpin of all effective employee feedback — whether you’re praising an employee for positive behaviour, or offering feedback on where to improve.
But understanding what makes feedback bad is just as important as what makes it good.
Examples of Positive Feedback
Getting praised for good work gives everyone the warm and fuzzies. But if you want employees to repeat positive behaviour, you need to reinforce praise with specifics.
Bad feedback: “Great work!”
- Why it doesn’t work: Nondescript feedback like this won’t tell your employee how they can repeat their behaviour.
- What to say instead: “Thanks so much for your hard work on our report launch last week. You did such a great job leading on the data analysis, and went the extra mile to support the entire team. We really appreciated your leadership skills and teamwork on this project.”
Examples of Negative Feedback
When constructive criticism isn’t framed in a structured way, it can make the recipient feel defensive and attacked. Over time, this can harm employee self-esteem and engagement.
Bad feedback: “Your performance is lagging. You need to do better.”
- Why it doesn’t work: Expressing negative feedback without specifics can feel hurtful — it also doesn’t give them a sense of how to improve.
- What to say instead: “We’ve always appreciated your teamwork and positive attitude. But lately, you’ve been experiencing challenges with time management. I wanted to ask if you’re experiencing any blockers, and how we can help you raise them more proactively in future. Is there a better way we can support you?”
When and How to Give Employee Feedback
Structured feedback is most effective when paired with a strong set of norms that define when and how to offer it.
When giving feedback to direct reports, managers can leverage existing performance management and team-level processes create structure around when feedback is delivered:
- One-to-ones: Manager one-to-ones and day-to-day check-ins create a safe space for employees to give and ask for feedback on a regular basis.
- Performance reviews: Bi-annual or quarterly performance reviews are an ideal time to check in on progress milestones on actions relating to feedback.
- Growth conversations: Discussing career development is a great time to highlight skills or competencies that contribute to the recipient’s growth path.
Structured processes set a rhythm around feedback cycles — but Spurling cautions against waiting for performance reviews. Instead, it’s better to implement continuous feedback.
“Some organisations wait for a specific process or time period to give feedback to employees,” she said. “But giving feedback as close as possible to when an event occurred is so much more powerful. You’re able to provide much more specific detail than during a performance review in a few months’ time. Proactive feedback is always best to keep employees progressing and developing.”
“Feedback given during an annual appraisal is likely to only involve genuine feedback on the previous few months, because it may be subject to recency bias. This means that our evaluation of a person or situation is heavily influenced by whatever has happened in the immediate past.
If someone has done something particularly good, or something particularly challenging has happened right before an appraisal, the assessment of that person could be viewed through that lens.”
When to Ask for Feedback
Feedback is a two-way conversation. Creating a company culture where employees feel empowered to ask for feedback not only boosts transparency and psychological safety, but it also instils a sense of ownership over individual growth and development.
In addition to structured team and performance management processes, great opportunities to ask for feedback include:
- Completing a project
- Learning a new skill
- Taking on a new role or responsibility
- After a big meeting or presentation
Feedback can often be spontaneous — but maximising feedback opportunities depends on being intentional and specific with what you’re asking for.
“Feedback is a gift, but it’s not all on the giver,” said Myton. “If I need something really specific, it’s on me to request specific and timely feedback. “Set your feedback partners up for success — make it like an Amazon wishlist of feedback.”
“Let’s say that one of the skills I’ve been working on is telling clear stories with data,” she said. “I have a proposal for a new programme that I’m presenting to my leadership team, and I know my manager will be in attendance. Ahead of time, I might drop them a note asking them to evaluate how I use data in part of the presentation, and its effectiveness in supporting my position.”
4 Feedback Strategies to Boost Employee Engagement
1. Embed feedback as part of your company culture.
Feedback thrives when it comes from a place of honesty. In order to ask for feedback, we need to feel safe being vulnerable. In order to give it, we need empathy.
This requires trust and psychological safety.
“Truthful, thoughtful feedback is part of the nature of high-trust organisations,” said Myton. “For me to trust your feedback, I also need to trust you. I need to believe you are evaluating my work fairly, thoughtfully and with positive intent. That can take time and relationship-building, but when you can get that right, people are motivated by feedback.”
Creating a safe environment for honest feedback requires leaders to step up. Managers and senior leaders must model how to ask for feedback just as much as how to give it.
“Organisations must create an environment where people feel comfortable asking for feedback,” said Spurling. “And that has to start from the top. As a leader, openly asking for feedback creates a safe space where people are more likely to model that behaviour.”
2. Look for impactful micro-feedback moments.
Sometimes, smaller feedback opportunities can be just as impactful to create alignment, bridge communication gaps between teams, and nudge towards behaviour change.
Myton calls this micro-feedback: “Our world is absolutely full of opportunities for micro-feedback. Positive micro-feedback might look like leaning in, nodding, or writing something down. Negative micro-feedback might be a puzzled look or a frown.”
Micro-feedback works best when it’s timely and concise. It could include an emoji acknowledgement, a one-minute video recording on a mutual project, or using tooling like Lattice Praise to publicly recognise hard work.
3. Proactively communicate feedback preferences and norms.
Successfully embedding your cultural norms around feedback relies on making sure that every team member knows exactly what good feedback looks like at your organisation.
"Not everyone instinctively knows how to give feedback,” said Myton. “But that doesn’t mean we can’t scaffold and learn it. If we as an organisation have agreed on a framework, then we’re all working from the same playbook and know what to expect.”
At Compt, Spurling says that new hires are asked to provide their feedback preferences as part of the onboarding process: “We ask new employees to fill out a public ‘Working with Me’ document where they outline how they like to receive feedback,” she said. “It helps us be more intentional about how feedback is delivered.”
For more support with seamless feedback, download our free constructive feedback agenda template.
4. Create feedback norms that support inclusion.
Feedback is only impactful when it’s heard and understood. That’s why Chapman recommends managers try to think inclusively when implementing feedback processes with team members.
“If you want any form of communication to land, you want to do what you can to make sure it is received and processed effectively," explained Chapman.
“As an example, too many managers rely on information being implied. This can lead to misunderstandings for neurodivergent people, who frequently miss subtext, sarcasm, or inferences. Some people struggle to process information aurally, so talking to them about an issue might not get information across effectively. Providing information in writing — either before or after — can be a big help.
“Taking time to consider how you can make your feedback work for different people makes it more likely that the feedback will lead to positive outcomes.”
5. Empower feedback from team members and peers.
Cross-functional feedback is immensely effective for personal development. A 2020 study found that positive employee recognition from peers and other stakeholders signals that their contributions are valued, boosting motivation to hone skills.
“Looking at our State of People Strategy 2023 report, one thing I think is really valuable is to not just look up at managers and down at direct reports, but look around,” said Myton. “High-performing HR teams are more likely to leverage feedback from sources other than managers, such as feedback from peers and clients.
“Help your team source feedback from outside sources,” Myton suggested. “Who else do they work with regularly? Who else has a similar or tangential role? Who else is working on the same things that they could practise and develop together?”
Feedback Is Built on Transparency. Transparency Is Built On Trust.
Feedback is meaningless without structure — but structure alone won’t create an environment where transparency and honesty thrive.
Strong feedback cultures are built on a foundation of mutual trust. Creating and scaling an effective feedback culture depends on leaders modelling not only the right norms and processes, but also the vulnerability and empathy that fosters more honest conversations.
Find out more about building a healthy feedback culture with our recent ebook: Getting Feedback Culture Right at Your Company.