Employee Feedback – How to Build Staff Morale and Grow Your Business


Did you know?

Businesses in the United States waste $105 billion each year dealing with poorly performing employees. (Sweden $1.3b, Australia $4.1b, Hong Kong $5.0b, Netherlands $7.1b, India $10.8b, UK $24.5b)1

United States managers spend 14% of their time redoing or correcting the mistakes of others – approximately one hour every day. (Sweden 8%, Australia 14%, Hong Kong 24%, Netherlands 15%, India 20%, UK 11%)1

Could feedback improve this situation? What is Two-Way feedback all about anyway? Could feedback really help to improve working relationships and productivity? This article draws on some of the research that highlights what's really happening in our workplaces, offers some strategies that have worked for other businesses and leaves you to draw you own conclusions. Feedback just might be worth trying.

What is feedback?

Giving feedback simply means telling people how they're going at work. Two-Way feedback means also taking feedback – being prepared to listen to what others tell you, without being defensive if it's not good news; listening for ways to improve your own performance and/or the business.

Many people equate feedback with delivering bad news, criticism of poor performance. But feedback also can, and should be, good news.

Feedback – the good news

Positive feedback, when you tell people they've done well, should be easy, e.g.:

  • Thanking people for a job well done.
  • Commending them for taking the initiative and solving a problem for you.
  • Discussing with individuals where they're going and what their career opportunities might be, even if it's not in your business or workplace.
  • Discussing progress with teams.
  • Celebrating the wins when everyone's pulled together and things have gone well.

This is the kind of feedback that everyone likes; the kind that motivates people to perform well consistently. The reality seems to be that it isn't often done.

Did you know?

A study released by Human Synergistics, an international organisational development firm, reported that "90% of employees work in a negative culture of blame, indecision and conformity", based on a study of 900 major organisations and more than 130,000 employees.2

A 12-month study by S. McCarthy of 1300 senior executives has found that managers focus on what is bad about their employees rather than on what is good – "I only hear from my boss when I stuff up". As a result they create a passive defensive culture where employees avoid responsibility and pass blame.3

Feedback – the bad news

Of course we also have to deliver the 'bad news' but when we have to give this kind of feedback we often end up criticising and distressing the person or people concerned, however well-intentioned we are. Why does it happen?.

A common reason is that we put up with things for too long because we don't know what to say or how to say it.

And we remember what happened last time when the recipient of our 'bad news' either cried, sulked, got defensive or started avoiding you. All of which caused us enormous stress.

When we realise the job can no longer be put off, we're so stressed that we react defensively, unnecessarily aggressive and hurtful. A recipe for staff discord and non-productive business.

Building a feedback culture

Building a workplace culture, where everyone is comfortable about receiving feedback about their performance, significantly reduces stress levels in manager-staff relationships.

Start thinking and acting like a leader

Giving, and taking, feedback starts at the top, with the business owner, the manager, even with the team leader. Step back from the immediate action and look at the bigger picture, at the business from a leader's perspective.

What do leaders do? They do things that inspire people to follow them, to help them build the business. Your business needs staff or it can't operate, or grow, so if you want to lead your staff you need to know exactly:

  • where your business is going
  • what it will take, from you and your staff to achieve it
  • what you need your staff to do to help you get there
  • how you'd like them to do it
  • how you'd like them to behave – around the office, with your clients, amongst themselves
  • why all those things are important

These are the big questions, often ones we don't really think about. Give yourself some time and space to stop and reflect on these questions.

Once clear about these questions you could follow steps other business leaders have taken:

  • Discuss your ideas with staff; explain why they are important to your business.
  • Talk to staff about why customer service is so important, what good service means. Even professional staff sometimes don't see the connection between what they do and customer perceptions of the business.
  • Develop with them a list of "Skills we Value Around Here" that describe the standards everyone aims for in e.g.: customer service, interpersonal skills, teamwork, time management, work ethic.
  • Reach agreement on giving them feedback on their performance – not just at an annual review – so they know how they are going.

Understand staff needs

If you are committed to giving feedback then it's worth understanding what staff want these days. One major research project, across workplaces, selected those that were 'simply the best'4 and found that staff all agreed they want these five essentials, topping a list of fifteen 'wants':

  • good leaders – someone supportive, trustworthy, who has integrity
  • to work to clear values – having a purpose, knowing how to behave
  • quality relationships – working with people who can be trusted, where there is mutual respect
  • to be able to 'have a say' – to take part in decision-making
  • to feel safe – physically and psychologically

If you've got Generation Y staff members it's worth noting that, according to researcher Peter Sheahan,5 this group wants feedback on the spot – not at far-off performance reviews; their rewards fast and personalised and public recognition for their efforts. GenY are "creative, resourceful and entertaining" he says; they like to work in teams, to develop and take on new challenges. A valuable resource – if they get feedback.

Deliver bad news as constructive feedback

If we don't tell people where they are going wrong they won't know where they stand, someone who 'gets away with it' will be resented; in either case your business suffers.

However, we need to avoid criticism of the person and focus instead on constructive feedback on their actions.

Criticism is personal when we say: "You're always late! Can't you get out of bed in the morning? If it happens once more ..."

If you stick to the facts, tell the person how their behaviour affects others and invite their input to solving the problem, you've got a far better basis for cooperation, e.g.: "I've noticed last week you were late four mornings. When that happens I have to help the other staff do your job and I feel I'm being used. What do you think we can do about it?"

Yes, there may come the time when reasonable negotiation no longer works; but at least start with a positive attitude.

Taking feedback

With a feedback culture established, you will need to accept feedback too. Remember though, others may not have learned how to give that feedback constructively. So, take a deep breath, swallow your pride as well as any instinct to react defensively. These guidelines may be useful.

  • Listen without interruption – you may learn something of real value.
  • If you hear something you don't agree with, simply say, "That's interesting!" and discuss it at the end.
  • Ask questions to clarify what exactly went wrong; what you did or didn't do.
  • Acknowledge what is true, but don't necessarily change your position – you may have good reasons for your actions.
  • Before taking any action ask for time to think and then get back to the person.

From a staff perspective

If your workplace has reached this level of cooperation you're in an excellent situation. However, great subtlety is required if the culture discourages your feedback; if your boss is defensive and takes feedback personally, or worse, quietly awaits a moment for retribution. These guidelines may be useful.

  • Always act politely and have patience.

  • Look for small-step improvements; you may not have the full picture.

  • A boss is busy and can often be excused for not taking immediate action, so:

    • Collect your evidence if you want a change. Gather information and support for your position.

    • Think through options that could be explored to solve the problem.

    • Be willing to do something yourself to change the situation.

  • Prepare your case very thoroughly.

  • Prove that you always follow-through, that you can be relied upon.

As a last thought, have you ever thought of thanking your boss for a job well done?

End Notes:

  1. "Getting the Edge in the New People Economy", report of a survey conducted by UK research group The Future Foundation
  2. "Organisational Culture Inventory", a study by the international organizational development firm Human Synergistics involving 900 major organizations and over 130,000 employees
  3. CCH Daily Email Alerts July 28, 2004
  4. Dr D Hull and V Read."Simply the best Workplaces in Australia" Working Paper No. 88, December 2003. A PDF version of this working paper can be downloaded from the AICRRT (University of Sydney) website
  5. Sheahan, P. (2005) "Generation Y: Thriving (and surviving) with Generation Y at work". Hardie Grant ISBN 1-74066-317-9

Copyright © Jennifer McCoy

About the Author
Jennifer McCoy

Jennifer McCoy is a Director and Principal behind Positive Change Consulting. She specialises in using coaching and mentoring strategies to build leadership skills, improve communication and develop teamwork – improving performance through people; mentoring business owners to plan strategically. Jennifer can be contacted at .

Jennifer Recommends
Two Way Feedback e-book

Find out more about creating high performance teams through a culture of collaboration and team work. Check out Jennifer McCoy's highly practical guide for managers and supervisors. Visit the 2 Way Feedback information portal to find out how to download the free Introductory Chapter and start using this practical guide today.

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