Think back to a time when you were given poor feedback. How did it feel? Were you challenged to improve or did you feel dismissed or unappreciated despite giving your best effort?

If you felt the latter, you’re not alone. Giving feedback in the workplace can be a slippery slope for leaders looking to improve employee performance and doing so effectively is a true challenge that all leaders face. In fact, a survey conducted by Harvard Business Review found that 44% of leaders felt that giving negative feedback was stressful or outright difficult to do.

As nerve wracking as it might seem, giving effective, critical feedback when necessary is essential to the development of both employees and organizations alike. Without feedback, performance simply would not improve. So, when the inevitable conversations regarding performance improvement come up, what can leaders do to make them less stressful and instead, motivating to their employees?

Be Sensitive

Feedback can seem rather insensitive if all the employee hears is what they’re doing wrong. There’re two opportunities at the start of the conversation for the leader to showcase their unique style of sensitivity with their employee.

  • The leader should allow the employee to share how they’re doing and where they could use additional support. By opening up the floor for the employee to express their feelings, the leader can gain insight into what could be causing poor performance and build rapport with their employee, who now sees the empathetic side of their leader.
  • The leader should celebrate some of the employee’s recent successes to show that they recognize the beneficial impact the employee brings to the organization. These two approaches start the conversation on a positive note and give the employee confidence that will carry throughout the critical feedback.

Be Specific

When the time comes to deliver feedback, it’s important to have a clear examples of where improvement is required. For example, if a manager of a call center tells an employee, “Your tone needs to change,” the employee could be left to interpret what the leaders means, which could cause confusion and an overall lack of motivation moving forward.

Instead, the learning leader should consider something along the lines of, “During your calls, sometimes you sound uninterested in the caller’s concerns. Let’s listen to a call together and identify when a caller might feel this way.” This feedback provides greater detail to what specifically needs improvement and the chance for the employee to hear what the leader means in a real scenario.

Giving specific feedback with examples or documentation can reduce the potential for misunderstanding and can drive the conversation toward a partnership between the employee and their leader.

Be Solution-Oriented

Once the feedback is delivered, it’s crucial that leaders follow up with a conversation on what future improvement looks like. In doing so, the leader and employee can identify reasonable objectives together and help the person find ways to avoid making the same mistake while learning a new behavior or better approach.

This can become a true motivator for the employee, since they now have something constructive to work on instead of dwelling on what they were doing incorrectly. By further engaging the employee in developing their own solutions, the leader can give them control of their success while guiding them toward improved performance.


Giving critical feedback to employees, while challenging, is a tool that leaders must utilize to improve their team and organization. By starting with a celebration of the employee’s achievements, the leader can build trust using empathy and developing connectivity.

As they work to deliver open and honest feedback, leaders should be prepared with specific examples of poor performance and offer clarity in their descriptions of what needs improvement. Once understood, the leader and employee should come together to develop impactful solutions for the employee that allow them to continue growing from the feedback. These steps, when used intentionally, aim to help learning leaders become more effective at motivating employees and building necessary skills for performance management.

Now, think back again to the time you received poor feedback. Did the person who gave it to you show sensitivity, share specifics or offer a solution moving forward? While these items are relatively simple, they can leave a large impact when utilized effectively, empowering people to improve on their own merit.