No Pain No Gain: The Keys To Effective Employee Feedback

Most people find it difficult to tell someone what they really think, particularly in a work setting. However, developing the skill (and some would say bravery) to offer and receive constructive feedback can be critical to a company’s overall growth and success.

How can employees make the right changes—or any changes at all—if they’re never told they’re acting in ways that don’t benefit the organization?

Why Reluctance Rules

In many cases, people don’t want to deliver negative feedback for fear of “rocking the boat.” This can be true even in organizations where the boat is already rocking, filled with water, and about to sink.

It’s also true in organizations where niceness and positivity are ingrained in the culture because the leaders, in particular, want to be seen as supportive and caring. A recent Harvard Business Review article by operations executive and team coach Jennifer Porter outlined the challenges of giving feedback in this kind of culture, but some of these are probably true regardless of the organization.

  • No one wants to hurt another person with negative feedback, particularly in situations where everyone is perceived as nice.
  • Learning how to give feedback takes practice and, as with all learning, “is inherently messy,” says the article. “We are all unskillful when we try something new. And this messiness and poor initial skill can easily be interpreted as unpoised, disrespectful, or unprofessional — all of which are unacceptable in a ‘nice’ culture.”
  • People at the top of the organization aren’t open with each other so there’s no-one to model good feedback behavior for employees down the chain.
  • Employees like their positive culture and “are typically reluctant to try anything that may jeopardize it,” says HBR.

How To Get Better

Learning how to effectively give constructive feedback takes work, says Porter. Below is a summary of her steps for leaders in any organizational culture to develop this skill.

  • Be thoughtful and caring. The goal here is to help someone improve, and they will only do that when they feel “safe,” meaning heard and respected.
  • Commit to being on a journey of learning.  “Commit to being better at candor and feedback and share a plan to get there. Tell your team about your commitment and ask for their help,” states Porter. “By starting with yourself, you’ll be modeling good behavior and demonstrating your commitment to the shift in culture.”
  • Request and accept feedback. Be courageous in asking for input and be willing to listen openly to whatever someone tells you. Porter’s advice is, “No matter what you hear, do not resist, explain, defend, or push back. You can process it all later and decide what you want to act on, but in the moment just take it all in. And say thank you.”
  • Accept that you’ll be uncomfortable. “Like learning any new skill, getting better at candor and feedback will be uncomfortable and you will do it unskillfully at the start. Your discomfort and mistakes mean you’re on the right path.”
  • See your mistakes as learnings. According to Porter, this sends a powerful message to your organization: “leaders make mistakes when they are learning something new, and they say they are sorry.”
  • Learn when feedback is not the right choice. Take time to discern whether you’re giving feedback because it’s needed or because your emotions are driving you. You want to support, not rant and place blame.
  • Be open to constant development. Learn from both what you’re doing well and what you’re not doing so well, says Porter. “Analyze what is working and what is not, then create strategies to improve.”

See It In Action

Another Harvard Business Review article shows how candid, on-going feedback has helped criminals, drug addicts, and homeless people not only start their own company but turn it into a thriving business.

In How to Make Feedback Feel Normal, Joseph Grenny, keynote speaker and leading social scientist for business performance, reviews a program called The Other Side Academy (TOSA). Most students attend TOSA versus going to jail. They learn new ways of living through running small businesses, and a group of them are running a multi-million-dollar business called The Other Side Movers.

According to Grenny, the company’s success comes from the fact that feedback is peer driven and a normal part of every work day. “A core value at The Other Side Movers is ‘200% Accountability.’ Meaning every employee is expected to be 100% accountable for the quality of their own work, AND 100% accountable for the quality of the work of everyone else they see. The quickest way to get in trouble at The Other Side Movers is not to fail on #1, but on #2.”

Consider adapting some of TOSA’s feedback methods into your organization where it makes sense. I am also here as a resource and a guide.

Effective and continuous feedback is proving to be a gateway to success for all types of companies. How will you make it part of yours?


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Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at

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