It can be hard not to come across as a total softie—or a total jerk—when giving your employees feedback.

Take it from Amanda Goldberg, CEO and founder of Oakland-based Planted Design, a twelve-person team that creates vertical living & preserved moss gardens. “My natural disposition is excited,” Goldberg says. “I love new ideas and my up-front excitement sounds a lot like an automatic ‘YES.’”

But having an immediate reaction isn’t always helpful. Goldberg realized that a full-on “yes” isn’t what she means 100% of the time. After a few premature affirmations of her team’s plant arrangements, she pumped the breaks on the automatic excitement, realizing that decisions that are best for the company often require more thought.

Why you need to give the right kind of feedback

While real-time feedback can be useful, sometimes it helps to pause and noodle on the situation so you can get your thoughts in order. That way, you can be sure the feedback you give isn’t mean—and is exactly what you mean.  

Giving an employee the wrong impression can be damaging to both your business and to their career because it’ll allow even the smallest bad patterns and habits to flourish. Remember, your job is to tell your team the truth.

Goldberg found that not reacting right away and crafting a thought-out (and more accurate) response has helped her employees produce better work that’s more in line with her vision.

How to give employees actionable feedback

Critical feedback doesn’t always feel good to receive—or to give. Lean on these two pointers to help:

Prep yourself before the conversation

It’s tempting to go with your first emotional reaction, whether that’s positive or negative. Instead, give yourself room to breathe before you deliver feedback. Here’s how to do that:

  1. Walk away from the situation.
  2. Look at what happened from the perspectives of everyone involved.
  3. Describe your desired outcome, and try to pinpoint where things went off-course.
  4. Accept what happened and think of solutions to get your employee to your desired outcome.
  5. Have the conversation with your employee. You’ve got this.

Give feedback based on your employee’s work style

According to Matt Lee, president of digital marketing agency Adhere Creative, good feedback is all about how you package it. So give feedback to each employee differently, depending on their work style and how they like to receive it.

Daniel Griggs, CEO of ATX Web Designs, agrees with Lee. For some employees, he uses praise to make harsher feedback feel less discouraging. “Others want it specific and direct,” Griggs says. And for another employee, Lee says, “I need to drive him to the point of utter frustration before he will produce something incredible.”

Feedback templates to steal

Here are owner-approved tactics and templates you can use for three common situations:

1. When there’s a customer mishap

Whenever an employee experiences a hiccup with a customer, Goldberg thinks about her response and then discusses it with that employee as soon as possible. That way, the focus is on solving the hiccup before any other work is affected and then offering the employee an immediate growth opportunity.

For instance, if an employee isn’t following an established rule, like scheduling an install that is least disruptive to a client, then Goldberg can pull the reins before the situation escalates.

Use these talking points when talking to your employee about a customer debacle:

  • “I noticed that the customer left pretty upset. Sorry you had to experience that.”
  • “Tell me what happened. Was this something we’ve encountered before? Or something outside of what normally happens?”
  • “What do you think caused it?
  • “How would you fix it for next time?”
  • “Let’s make sure we have a policy on paper next time to ensure this doesn’t occur again and so other teammates know how to respond.”

The key is to empathize with your employee and then explore why the incident occurred. If you don’t have a policy that captures what happened, consider asking your employee to help you write it, since they have firsthand experience.

Goldberg creates a standard operating procedure (SOP) document for each team. It’s a set of guidelines that explains how to do a given task, so people know what details to iron out beforehand. This comes in handy for managing an employee’s relationship with a client, because the doc helps Goldberg protect her employees if a client is unhappy.

Here’s a page out of Planted Design’s photography SOP:

“I am able to fall back on our standard operating procedures when there is a mishap, and we see them as living documents,” she says. “This improves our business and helps the next employee avoid the same mishap.

2. When there are performance problems

Goldberg makes sure to talk to employees in person about performance issues. During the discussion, she tries to understand what is happening from her employee’s POV before working on a plan to help them improve. Then she schedules a 30-day check-in after that initial meeting so she can make sure her employee is back on track.

You may also want to think about using a performance improvement plan, or PIP, a document written by the manager and agreed upon by the employee, which lays out the goals an employee needs to hit in a specific timeframe.

Schedule a meeting with your employee to get to the heart of the problem. Let them know you’ll be there to support them as they take steps to up their performance:

  • “I’ve noticed your work/behavior has changed lately. Can we talk about why?”
  • “To ensure this doesn’t happen again, I’ll check in with you in a month to make sure everything is OK.”
  • “If there’s anything I can do to help smooth things out in the meantime, let me know.”

3. When there are teammate issues

“It’s a priority that every person knows they are heard,” Goldberg says. So when there’s a conflict between coworkers, she meets with both parties separately to cross-reference stories and find out what really happened. She also meets with people together, depending on the situation.

Everyone knows everything in a small company, but getting the stories straight from the beginning helps to de-escalate things quickly—and puts a stop to gossip.

Follow Goldberg’s approach to make sure everyone has an opportunity to have their say:

  • “I understand you were having some issues with Farrah. Can you tell me what happened?”
  • “Jordan felt like you said something inappropriate. Can you describe the conversation?”

Then, help your teammates resolve the issue together:

  • “Jordan, Farrah, after talking to both of you, we think this might be a misunderstanding, but we wanted to give you two the opportunity to discuss the issue with each other to ensure this doesn’t happen again.”

Reining in the knee-jerk feedback has taught Goldberg how to offer feedback that resolves issues and drives results.

So take a breath. Think through your approach before you blurt things out. And create policies and guidelines. Because when your employees know everything has a rhyme and a reason, the feedback process can be way more meaningful.

We joined forces with Lattice to build a practical feedback guide for small businesses. Read the rest of the series and learn how to give non-jerky feedback to your boss, co-worker, and client.

Annie Siebert Annie is a Pittsburgh-based writer and editor. When she’s not behind the keyboard, Annie enjoys cooking, baking, running, and hiking.
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