Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Great Managers Give Great Feedback

To do the work of management well, you have to invest in people’s growth.

Key points

  • Meaningful feedback leads to better outcomes, including greater employee engagement.
  • The best feedback is frequent, focused, and future-oriented.
  • Effective feedback builds relationships based on trust.
Source: Mimi Thian/Unsplash
Two women talking.
Source: Mimi Thian/Unsplash

Management is one of the hardest roles you will ever occupy professionally. It often can feel like you have responsibility without authority; you are asked to push forward directives from above through the people who report to you. Not only are you responsible for their work, as well as your own, you also are responsible for their growth and development. It takes a tremendous amount of time and emotional investment when done well.

Unfortunately, too many managers aren’t doing the work of management well because they haven’t been taught how to do so. Getting it wrong can have devastating impacts on people and cultures.

The manager as the coach

The work of management is not just about getting work done. Increasingly, one of the most important roles that people expect their managers to play is that of a coach. In fact, recent research demonstrates that employees consistently note that their relationship with management is the top factor in their job satisfaction and ability to feel engaged at work. An internal study by Google into what makes a great manager found that the number-one behavior of high-scoring managers is that of being a good coach. If you want to be a great manager, you have to be a great people developer. And that means knowing how and when to give great feedback.

Using coaching strategies in your management role requires investing in your people. In its purest form, coaching doesn’t mean telling the other person what to do or how to do it. A coach asks thoughtful questions, provides encouragement, knows when to give advice and when to hold back, practices active listening, upholds accountability, and provides objective feedback.

The easier path is to say, “Do this thing in this exact way and tell me when you’re done, and then I’ll tell you the next thing to do.” Easier, yes, but the results of this style of micromanagement are disengaged and disempowered employees who depend upon you for their every move. In the long run, this “easier path” means more work for you, the manager.

First, the relationship

Everyone has an example of receiving poorly delivered feedback. It’s generally critical; it doesn’t help you grow; it feels like a personal attack, and, ultimately, it feels like it’s coming out of thin air. Even when the content of the message is positive (“You’re doing great!”) and probably feels better, it’s not helpful if you don’t know how you’re doing great or how to keep being great. And frequently, people who are told, “You’re doing great,” walk away thinking, “I know I’m not doing great. Why can’t that person help me to get better?”

Well-delivered feedback always starts weeks or months before the feedback conversation. Why? Because before you can have an honest conversation with someone about their strengths and growth opportunities, first you have to build a relationship with them based on trust. As a manager, this means a few key things:

  • You have to get to know your people as individuals. And this means having conversations with them, learning about their interests, strengths, and challenges, identifying opportunities where you can support them, and demonstrating genuine interest in them as human beings.
  • You need to set clear expectations for the work. How do you expect people to show up every day? What does successful work look like? How will you measure success? What is your preferred method of communication? You can’t hold people accountable for unspoken expectations and then wonder why they disappoint you.
  • You have to build a track record of consistent behavior. Building trust with someone is, first and foremost, doing what you say you will do. If you say you’re going to support and advocate for your people, then you need to do so. If you say you’re going to hold people accountable for their behavior, then you need to do so. The first time that you don’t do the things you say you will do, you have broken trust. And trust, once broken, is almost impossible to repair.

Then, the feedback

When you have done the work of developing relationships with your people based on trust, then the feedback conversations become easier and more effective. Even when you have to deliver hard news, your people will understand that you do so out of genuine care for their progress and success. The conversation may still be challenging, but that’s why you’re the manager. You need to be willing to have hard conversations. Or, you need to step aside and let someone else do the work.

A recent Gallup study noted that the best feedback is frequent, focused, and future-oriented, which is, I think, a great mantra for us all to adopt. Another way to look at this is what I call the I-O-I model: great feedback is immediate, objective, and impactful. It’s immediate in that it’s delivered as close as possible to the observed behavior.

This doesn’t mean that as soon as you have a thought, it should come out of your mouth. Sometimes you will need to gather additional information. Sometimes you might just need to sleep on it. But you don’t wait six months to give someone feedback. Great managers should have feedback conversations with their people at every one-on-one meeting, and they should have one-on-one meetings at least every other week.

Great feedback is objective, which means that it is based on observed behavior. It also means you should try to stay out of second and third-hand feedback. If someone comes to you with an issue with one of your people, your job is not to carry that feedback forward. Your job is to coach that person on how they can have a feedback conversation with the other individual. Finally, great feedback is impactful. It’s focused on the impact of the behavior on yourself, on others, or even on the person doing the behavior in question.

For example: “Yesterday, in our team meeting, when you kept checking your phone, it made the rest of the team feel disrespected. I’d like to hear more about what was happening and help you think about some strategies moving forward because I know this is behavior that is going to impede your progress on this team.” Immediate. Objective. Impactful. Frequent, focused, and future-oriented. Try it out the next time you have to have one of these conversations.

The problem with performance reviews

Lastly, a note on the annual performance review, the ultimate form of terrible feedback. Generally speaking, performance reviews break all the rules I have just discussed. They aren’t immediate. Instead, managers store up information for 12 months and then batter their people with information that comes as a complete surprise. They can be objective if done well, though the sheer volume of information tends to diminish the impact. Performance reviews, by their very nature, aren’t future-oriented. And because they are tied up in people’s salaries and promotions, they easily can become weaponized.

If you are doing your job as a manager, you shouldn’t need an annual conversation to “review your employee’s performance.” You shouldn’t need your people to regurgitate their accomplishments for the past 12 months and tell you whether they have met their goals. If you are doing the work of management the right way, you should be having these conversations all year long as you continually invest in your people. And then, as a gift to you both, you truly can have a reflective and future-oriented conversation that builds relationships, develops trust, and engages people in their work.

More from Allison E McWilliams Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today