Feedback: The workplace equivalent of forcing your kids to eat vegetables

Feedback should be presented in a way that brings out the best of the situation and makes it more consumable for employees.

Why do we force our kids to eat vegetables? Because vegetables are good for them – they help kids grow up healthy and strong. Also, we don’t want them to fill up with less nutritious foods. But every parent knows that forcing kids to eat their vegetables is often a thankless battle, albeit important. 

As an adult I enjoy eating brussels sprouts and spinach if they are presented in an appetizing way. Brussels sprouts are delicious when roasted with bacon and spinach is one of my favorite foods with a little lemon, butter and garlic. As with vegetables, feedback should be presented in a way that brings out the best of the situation and makes it more consumable. 

Also, just as parents dread arguments over vegetables, leaders dread giving feedback for many reasons. It makes both the giver and the recipient of the feedback uncomfortable. As a leader, you don’t know how your employee will react but, undoubtedly, they are likely to be a little defensive. Therefore, leaders often do one of two things: either completely avoid the act of providing feedback, or disguise corrective feedback between statements of praise, often referred to as the “bad news burger.” The latter approach ultimately confuses the employee and prevents the feedback from getting through, which is the critical foundation for growth and development. 

Feedback is critical for your employees’ development and you as a leader have the all-important role of providing such feedback to grow, teach, mentor and nurture your employees. It is especially hard to give feedback during times of high turnover, as we have seen during the Great Resignation and quiet quitting, or when the employee is a top performer. It is even more important to develop methods for feedback that support your employees’ development and growth in a positive way without blurring the message; this can make all the difference for motivating behavioral change. The good news is that leaders can get better and more comfortable with giving feedback and ensure employees are hearing what is intended. 

3 Ps of feedback

When I am gearing up to provide feedback to an employee, I focus on three things: purpose, preparation, perseverance. These are the 3 Ps of offering feedback.

Purpose: If you don’t have a clear, intentional purpose to provide feedback, you will talk yourself out of the task almost every time. In the case of feedback, purpose has more to do with focusing on the good that this feedback can bring to your employee and how they will grow as a result. Here are some questions to consider about purpose: 

  • Why am I giving the feedback? 
  • What do I want the feedback to achieve?
  • How do I imagine the feedback will help my employee both short- and long-term?

Preparation: Delivering meaningful feedback takes preparation. This means more than planning the words you are going to say, but the mindset in which you as a leader approach the conversation. Keeping the purpose top of mind will help to frame a more positive feedback giving-receiving experience. Questions that can help you prepare are: 

  • What do I want the receiver of feedback to hear? 
  • What do I NOT want the receiver to hear? 
  • What tangible examples could I offer? 
  • What do I want the receiver to feel as a result? 
  • What motivates this receiver to positive action and how can I inspire this?

Prepare yourself to invite conversation and actively listen to your employee’s response and non-verbal cues. Consider this an opportunity to foster psychological safety for a two-way conversation about growth and positive momentum for change, not a flogging for past errors.

Perseverance: Even with preparation, you may still be tempted to avoid the conversation. Instead, try to envision giving this feedback instead as a gift that you are uniquely positioned to provide to your employee. If you do not give this gift, then who else will? It isn’t fair to hold this gift back from your employee, so don’t let yourself off the hook! Some things you can plan are:

  • Set a time and date to provide the feedback; then, hold yourself accountable to do it. 
  • Don’t put it off until the end of the meeting – it can make the feedback seem unimportant. 
  • Plan to ask how you can support putting this feedback into action. 
  • Focus your delivery on helping your employee with positive, forward momentum.

The 3 Ps in action

I’ll share a personal example of a time I used the 3 Ps for a feedback conversation. I had a particularly difficult piece of feedback to provide to a team member several years ago. The employee was a hard worker and prided herself on excelling and getting things exactly right. She had been accustomed to hearing only praise throughout her career, so I thought it could be difficult for her to receive constructive feedback. She frequently asked for feedback, but I suspected that the only feedback she was accustomed to receiving had been praise. I was hesitant about how she might react to the constructive performance feedback I was planning to provide.

I thought deeply about the purpose. I wanted her to have career opportunities that would be stunted if she didn’t receive this feedback. I needed to offer the feedback as a gift that would show I care about her and respect her, insights that could directly impact her performance, her work relationships and even her future. 

I prepared my mindset and words for the conversation. I decided to start by asking if I could provide feedback and making it clear that it would be constructive. Next, I would explain the purpose of giving her the constructive feedback: that I care about her as an employee, want her to be successful now and want to support her growth and development for future opportunities. Finally, I thought about how I would present the feedback and a couple (not too many!) tangible examples I could offer.

persevered with the feedback at our next one-on-one a few days later, just as I had prepared. She received the feedback well; we had a robust conversation in which she offered ideas about how she wanted to implement the feedback, obstacles she might face and next steps she could take for quick momentum. 

At the end of the conversation, she thanked me. She saw the feedback as a positive, like the gift that I wanted her to see it as. She knew I wanted to help her improve and grow and that I believed she could aspire to greater performance and results.

Feedback follow-up

Once you have had a successful feedback conversation, do not stop there. Continue showing your employee that you support their development through follow-up conversations. Ask how things are going, allow your employee to ask more questions, brainstorm challenges and obstacles and help course-correct where things aren’t going so well yet. Most importantly, though, celebrate movement in the right direction.

As a leader, you are in a unique position to give your employee feedback. If you don’t, you are limiting your employees’ ability to grow, improve and reach their full potential.