3 Smart Managerial Feedback Tactics That Build Up Employee Engagement

June 23, 2020
by Damian Keane

Effective managerial feedback grows employee engagement because it’s 100% honest, human, and nurturing. In this post, you’ll learn how to apply three tactics that will turn you into a feedback black belt ninja manager who inspires and motivates employees and helps them grow, connect, and engage.

Tom is sitting at his office desk, fuming.

He just stepped out of the end-of-the-year performance review with his boss, during which she accused him of being unfocused, unable to prioritize, and difficult to work with.

Tom knows she’s right — he loves certain aspects of his job and excels at them. But he often fumbles other things, such as monthly reports or providing support to his team members.

However, focusing on his negatives during a performance review session won’t motivate Tom to improve. If anything, this type of feedback will have a detrimental impact on his engagement levels. Right now, as his boss is talking to one of his colleagues, Tom is slowly flipping through the latest job postings, completely convinced that it’s time for a career change.

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Scheduling back-to-back performance reviews, ushering team members into your office one by one, and rattling off things they’re doing wrong — that’s a managerial cop-out and it’s super easy to do if you just want to get done with it.

But if you want to be a good manager — one that inspires and motivates employees — you need to master the art of giving engagement-boosting feedback.

Become a managerial feedback ninja by focusing on these three things:

Let’s take a look at how you can make these tactics work for you.

1- Encourage Employees to Ask For Conversations

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The words, Can I give you some feedback?” are one of the most stressful words that an employee can hear from their boss.

Those words activate their fight-or-flight response — for some people, the reaction is akin to confronting a roaring lion on a gold-tinted African steppe (our lizard brain is a powerful thing). Whatever happens in this situation, it will most likely not benefit the employee in a significant way.

That’s because a lot of us associate feedback with unsolicited criticism.

For that reason alone, you should banish the word feedback from your vocabulary — especially if you have no intention of bringing up any problems or negatives.

Instead, try phrasing things more invitingly: “Let me know if you’d like to talk about your presentation — I have some materials that might be helpful.”

This accomplishes two things:

  • it avoids the word feedback and any and all negative preconceptions employees surround it with, and;
  • it invites people to actually ask for advice instead of feeling as if it’s being forced on them.

Considering how most employees feel the feedback they receive is not effective (around 74%, according to Gallup), inviting them to ask for conversations (effectively, feedback) is a good way of flipping the script.

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This is not to say that there’s no room for formal reviews and feedback sessions — you should still have regularly scheduled check-ins, especially if an employee’s performance and behavior cry out for it. However, this unstructured, more casual approach to feedback fits better with the times — and it’s easy to turn it into a continuous thing instead of a once-per-year exercise.

Learn more about employee engagement and how you can motivate & inspire your employees to give it their 110%. Download our Ultimate Guide to Employee Engagement.

Download PDF Guide Now


2- Plan for Genuine Appreciation Feedback Sessions

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Over the years, we have created a global workplace environment in which employees dread performance reviews and feedback sessions because they know that something negative is going to come up.

And as a manager, you dread them because you think you have to find a negative to prod, pick on, and over-analyze. 

We refer to this model as the deficiency model — always focusing on problems to solve or obstacles to overcome (even when we can’t find any significant ones).

This style of managerial feedback kills employee engagement.


Because it sets you up for failure.

If you’re good at it - meaning you can easily create a Praise - Criticism - Praise sandwich - the employee will leave your office feeling good. But they won’t leave feeling great. Or respected. Or genuinely appreciated.

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A radical idea, right?

Well, not according to various Gallup surveys. A recent one shows that employees who leave a feedback session feeling positive are also more engaged (55%). In contrast, those that leave a session feeling negative are mostly not engaged or even actively disengaged (89.1%).

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Don’t worry that this type of feedback session will be a waste of time — just because you’re focusing on strengths doesn’t mean the employee won’t be able to identify additional areas for growth and improvement. 

The key to a successful appreciation feedback session is to come in aware of what the conversation will be about, prepared to avoid discussing the negatives and the problems, and ready to coax the employee to think about how to further develop and apply their strengths.

  • Identify the when and the who of the session - if you’re already having bi-weekly or monthly catch-up sessions with your team members, it’s easy to roll this into one of those. Simply take 20 minutes at the start to talk to them about what they did well (and how they did it), and the entire dynamics of your catch-up meeting with change, becoming more productive and easy-going.
  • Set up expectations and prep yourself - don’t spring this on your employees — although it’s a positive thing, you want to be upfront and give them time to think of their strengths and the examples they want to mention. You also need to prepare by coming up with specific positive things you want to address.
  • Plan the agenda for the conversation - prepare the questions you want to ask. Here are some examples: Tell me about the challenges you were able to overcome in the last few weeks? What talents and strengths did you rely on to do this? How did this feel? How can I help you further develop these skills? Where else do you see yourself applying these skills and strengths? After the chat, thank them emphatically for their contributions and the skills they’re bringing to your team.
  • Consider a quick follow-up - check in with the employee a week or so after this session (face-to-face or in a phone call). Reiterate your appreciation and gratitude, and remember to comment on the progress of any specific actions you’ve both committed to during the meeting.

This is a structured and systematic way of showing your employees that you appreciate them but don’t forget that praise can (and should) be spontaneous. Keep a mental catalogue of your colleagues’ positive work traits and behaviors — when you see one of them being exhibited, call it in the moment. Saying things like “an inspired fix, great thinking” or “nicely handled, excellent job” doesn’t cost you anything but it shows that you’re paying attention and value effort.

3- Above All Else, Be Fair

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It’s not fair...

“... it’s not fair that I’ve been busting my chops for 3 years with no promotion in sight…”

“... it’s not fair I got reprimanded for slightly raising my voice during that recent meeting…”

“... it’s not fair that one slip up cost me a pay raise…”

As adults, we don’t say this often — but you know as well as I do that we think it plenty.

In your time as a manager, you’ve had at least one time when an employee thought you weren’t being fair to them during a feedback session. Worst of all, they were probably right.

It happens to the best managers, and it happens often — according to this Gallup survey, only around 29% of employees agree that the performance reviews and feedback they receive are fair.

Why is that?

It’s because feedback sessions and reviews eschew fairness for the sake of correcting unwanted behaviors and ironing out performance kinks. Managers tend to dredge up the past to find incidents and problems to focus on because they’ve been conditioned to do so by the deficiency model I’ve already mentioned. In the process, they tend to de-emphasize the employee’s more recent achievements, successes, and strengths.

However, the link between (perceived) fair managerial feedback and employee engagement is so real that it’s almost tangible. If an employee feels that they are treated differently or unfairly by their manager, they will also feel that there’s nothing they can do to change that. They will be unmotivated, unproductive, and actively disengaged until that perception changes or they are fired or quit.

In a lot of cases, managers are not even aware that they are perceived as giving unfair feedback. After all, what’s unfair to one person might be fair to another, right? 

Well, it turns out that feedback fairness is not so enigmatic after all.

According to a study published by Jennifer L. Sparr and Sabine Sonnentag from the University of Konstanz in Germany, here’s what you need to do for your feedback to be seen and experienced as fair and unbiased:

  • Rely on accurate information - avoid using hearsay information when giving formal or informal feedback. Refer only to verifiable information and facts that are documented or behaviors that you’ve witnessed first-hand.
  • Give your reasoning behind an assessment - tell employees why you’re telling them to change certain processes, behaviors, or ways they do things. Flip through these explanations in your head - if your reasons are ‘because I don’t do it that way’ or ‘because it’s not how we do it here’, you might want to reconsider raising the point, especially if the job gets done to a high standard and there are no complaints.
  • Deliver your feedback succinctly, respectfully and politely - you might be the manager but you don’t own people who report to you. Treat them with respect, don’t waste their time, and offer help if/when you can — they’ll appreciate you more for it and will make more of an effort to live up to your standards in the future.
  • Take into account the whole of an employee’s performance - during a yearly performance/feedback session, don’t focus only on employee slip-ups. Give more time to the things they’ve done well over the year — otherwise, they’ll walk out with the impression that you’re only waiting to call out their mistakes and that’s demoralizing.

When Feedback Leaves Employees Feeling Positive, You’re Doing A Good Job

… but don’t make the mistake of thinking that you can’t criticize an employee — or their performance — during a feedback session.

If they’re not pulling their weight, you can and you should.

It’s how you do it that’s important.

Consider the three points we’ve discussed in this post:

  • framing feedback as conversations (and making it an ongoing thing);
  • holding genuine appreciation sessions where you focus on employee strengths;
  • ensuring fairness throughout the feedback process.

These tactics give you plenty of opportunities to engage in meaningful conversations with employees. And because you’re not approaching feedback as a once-a-year thing, addressing occasional slip-ups will not come off as you picking on employees or targeting them when they make a mistake.

Feedback that increases employee engagement and builds employees up is a process, not an event. Treat it as such and you will become a manager people are willing to work hard for.

Learn more about employee engagement and how you can motivate & inspire your employees to give it their 110%. Download our Ultimate Guide to Employee Engagement.

Download PDF Guide Now




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