Matt Tenney, Contributor

Previously, we’ve discussed how a  feedback-rich culture is essential to building a high performing team of engaged employees. We’ve also discussed ways leaders can praise their employees professionally

Obviously, it’s far easier to set a polite, positive tone when you are giving feedback in praise of the work an employee does. But how do you keep the tone positive when providing feedback to an employee who needs a course correction or whose performance has been less than stellar?

Whether your feedback is praise for the accomplishments of an employee or a constructive critique of their performance, it is important to always take a polite approach when providing feedback to an employee.

In this article, we will discuss the top six most important steps for leaders to politely give feedback to their teams.

Step 1: Be Compassionate

Approaching the feedback process with compassion is the first and most important step to politely give feedback to an employee. This means moving beyond mere empathy, which can overwhelm us and burn us out emotionally, to a truly compassionate approach.  

When we shift from empathy to compassion, emotionally we are able to perceive the situation more fully, with the aim of identifying the specific actions we can take to help the employee to succeed.

Before you judge an employee’s actions or behaviors, and before you approach the employee with feedback, try to put yourself in their shoes—and then try to identify ways you can help. 

There may be some valid reasons the employee missed an important deadline or didn’t perform as well as they usually do. And there may be simple steps you can take as a leader to help that employee reach their potential or, at the very least, overcome the immediate obstacles on the path to success. 

Being compassionate helps the employee identify any issues that need fixing in a supportive manner that is much more likely to result in improved performance and will make the employee more comfortable receiving and responding to feedback when it’s offered. 

Step 2: Be Aware

With compassion being such an important component of the feedback process, it is essential that leaders have some awareness of what’s going on in the lives of their employees and what could be holding them back.

If senior management makes a point of checking in with employees regularly, it can help them gain a greater understanding of what their team members are going through. Having an awareness of any issues their employees may be experiencing can help them craft more helpful feedback. 

There may be struggles in the life of an employee that top leadership is unaware of. As Sarah Goff-Dupont at Atlassian says, we don’t always know what our team members are going through. Some battles, physical illness or loss of a family member, are usually more obvious. Others, less so.” 

In fact, most battles employees are fighting are invisible, particularly when it comes to mental health. 

According to the Anxiety & Depression Association of America (ADAA), 40% of people experience persistent or excessive stress or anxiety in their daily lives, and 72% of people who have daily stress and anxiety claim it interferes with their lives at least moderately. 

As anxiety and depression can have a significant impact on an employee’s performance, you may find yourself in a situation where you have to give feedback to an employee whose well-being and overall performance are being affected by mental health issues. 

It’s critical to keep this feedback as polite and supportive as possible to avoid increasing the employee’s anxiety or activating their fight or flight response. Providing a non-judgemental space for employees to discuss these issues can improve both an employee’s mental well-being and their performance.  

Step 3: Be Positive

It’s inevitable that leaders will have to provide negative feedback on an employee’s performance. However, it is possible to do this in a constructive, polite, and positive way. 

Delivering negative feedback in a harsh or purely critical tone is not constructive if your goal is to guide the employee towards desirable behaviors. In fact, this approach could make an employee feel attacked and defensive, leading to disengagement.

Delivering negative feedback positively is less likely to send the employee into a defensive, fight or flight response, and you are much more likely to see an improvement in the employee’s actions, attitudes, and behaviors. It shows that you value the employee and want to help them improve.

Step 4: Be a Mentor

Another approach to providing feedback that will let an employee know you care about their well-being and want to help them succeed is to offer coaching and mentoring opportunities 

If your feedback is to truly impact your employees, provide feedback as a mentor. This is a wonderful opportunity to guide behaviors when a course correction is needed. 

This is a great way to let employees know your expectations, which is important for employee  performance. When employees don’t know your standards, they will likely be unable to consistently meet them.

When you show employees that you are truly invested in their well-being by guiding them toward career and personal success, they will value your feedback and be more receptive and responsive to it. 

Step 5: Be Consistent

According to Gallup, “No news is not good news.” 

We can actually thrive on feedback that is critical of our performance and appreciate it more than no feedback at all. Studies have shown that when managers focus on weaknesses rather than ignoring employees, those employees become more engaged.

When giving feedback to employees, consistency is key. Feedback should be given regularly, and it should be provided to all team members, at every level of the organization.

This means providing praise that is specific when an employee does their job well and providing meaningful feedback and constructive criticism when needed. 

In other words, don’t just offer praise for a job well done, reserve feedback for the times when an employee exhibits behaviors that need to be improved, or provide no feedback whatsoever. Find the right balance, and keep your system of feedback consistent. 

Step 6: Be Timely

When a situation arises that requires constructive feedback, don’t delay in giving that feedback. 

Although it is wise to put some thought and planning into the best way to provide feedback in any given situation, being proactive is essential to providing effective feedback. 

This means not putting feedback off until it’s time for that annual performance review. It’s important for employees to receive feedback on their behavior and performance more frequently than the annual review allows for. 

By the time those yearly reviews roll around, your feedback, if given in a timely manner, will have helped employees improve their performance well in advance of their performance review.

Inspire People To Seek Out More Feedback

When you give feedback effectively, you’ll find that your team will learn to thrive on feedback. 

One of the best ways to gauge whether you are giving polite and effective feedback that authentically and supportively guides others to perform at their best is how well your team members respond to your feedback and if they regularly seek out more feedback in pursuit of continuous improvement. 

We recently sat down with business consultant and author Andrew Freedman to discuss how to give feedback in a way that inspires people to seek out more feedback, and he offered some interesting insight into how best to approach this sometimes tricky situation. 

As Freedman says, “In order for people to know what they’re doing that they should do more of, or what they are doing that they need to do differently or better in order to achieve those high standards of excellence, they need feedback, we all need feedback.”


Matt Tenney is the founder of PeopleThriver and The Generous Group, two companies that aspire to create the best workplace cultures in the world.  Matt is also the author of Serve To Be Great: Leadership Lessons from a Prison, a Monastery, and a Boardroom, and The Mindfulness Edge: How to Rewire Your Brain for Leadership and Personal Excellence.  Matt is frequently invited to present keynote speeches at leadership conferences and meetings.  His TEDx Talk has been viewed over 1,000,000 times since January, 2020.

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