Teach employees to ask for feedback from reluctant bosses

by Jack Zenger

feedback and magnifying glassI hear employees say they wish they received more feedback from their bosses. And the fact is that when they do, their productivity and performance seem to increase.

Why is employer-to-employee feedback in such short supply? The answer is simple: Managers consistently rank “feedback” among their most difficult duties.

So the question is: What can be done to create a feedback-rich environment at your organization? Here are three simple things an organization can do that will help employees, improve productivity and bolster business:

1. Encourage employees to ask for feedback. Those who seek feedback get more of it. Managers feel more comfortable giving it.

Performance Review D

Tip: HR pros can lead the charge on this. If you hear employees complaining that they don’t get enough feedback, send them a gentle reminder that they should try asking for it. Have your boss encourage feedback seeking. Bring it up at new employee orientations.

2. Teach employees how to be good receivers of feedback. Most organizations train managers how to give feedback, but they don’t teach employees how to receive it. If they viewed the feedback process as a way to collect information leading to greater success, pay raises and promotions, they might accept it as help rather than as criticism.

Tip: Encourage employees to ask specific questions during performance reviews and informal feedback meetings. For example, if a boss doesn’t offer suggestions on how to improve job performance, the employee should ask that very question. Instead of getting defensive when a boss says someone needs to change or improve, the employee should ask for examples of specific times when he or she demonstrated the behavior that needs changing.

3. Encourage managers to ask for feedback from their own bosses. By asking questions to clarify how their superiors want them to behave and change, and by showing appreciation for the feedback—even if they don’t agree with it—managers can show employees that they are not defensive when their own bosses offer constructive criticism.

Positive vs. negative

Whether positive or negative feedback is better is up for debate. It’s fairly easy for a manager to tell employees how wonderful they are or to praise them for something good they did. However, it may not be helpful.

Stanford University researchers found that young children whose parents and teachers do nothing but praise them for being smart and creative are less successful in school than peers who have been lauded for effort, focus and hard work. Children who believe they are perfectly smart and wonderful will be perplexed when they fail a test or face tough problems. And they just might wonder why their parents and teachers lied to them. On the other hand, kids who have learned that hard work and sharp focus equal success are more likely to realize that effort and concentration are keys to overcoming challenges.

The same principle applies in the business world. Telling an employee how brilliant he is doesn’t help much. Positive feedback about focus and tenacity does.

So does negative feedback—when it’s specific. A boss who tells an employee that a presentation would have been better if it included more anecdotes or illustrations is providing coaching that leads to improvement. And when asked what kind of feedback they want, employees by a two-to-one margin say they want specific suggestions for changes they can make to improve.

Understanding the purpose of feedback

HR pros have a big opportunity to help both managers and employees understand what kind of feedback is helpful. Once everyone realizes feedback that’s correcting and redirecting is valuable, teach managers how to give that kind of feedback in a way that has a positive outcome.


Jack Zenger is co-founder and CEO of Zenger Folkman, a professional services firm providing consulting, leadership development programs and implementation software for organizational effectiveness initiatives. Contact him at (801)705-9375.