Employee Feedback: It’s More Than Words – Part 1

–Consider the Context

“Is there a way to say it that isn’t so condescending?”

I got this question while conducting training on providing employee feedback. The question was in response to me sharing one way to open a conversation. Perplexing. After listening I realized I overlooked a key part of offering feedback effectively – context.

For me, context includes:

  • Relationship.
  • Their current state.
  • How you both view feedback.

It’s more than words.

We can practice opening the conversation, and how to respond to an array of responses, but unless we are clear on the context and our intent, we may not be effective.


We have to consider our relationship with the other person. I don’t mean just the reporting relationship (e.g., supervisor/report), but the quality of our relationship, and the state of our relationship.

  • Do they respect you?
  • Do they trust you?
  • Have you demonstrated commitment to their potential, development, and success?
  • How often do you interact in a meaningful way?
  • What has been the nature of your interactions, period? Though specific feedback may not always be positive, is the broad brush take-away positive? I like to say, “Leave them with hope and action.
  • Do they know/believe you care about them?

As I write this I realize some of these questions go both ways.

Do you respect them? Do you trust them? Do they demonstrate commitment to their own potential, development, and the organization’s success?

Their current state.

Consider what is going on for them right now as it relates to work performance, e.g., wins, level of performance, how they are viewing the meaning of their work, and the potential impact of their contribution.

  • How are they doing right now?
  • Will your feedback come as a surprise?
  • Are they used to getting feedback?
  • How often do they get feedback?
  • How have they responded in the past?

How you both view feedback.

Is feedback an event, a transaction, “something to get over with,” or understood to be part of an ongoing discussion, i.e., an investment?

The attitude you bring to the conversation makes all the difference. Feedback doesn’t have to be some big formal thing. Regular meetings that allow you and your employees to get to know each other help. Feedback can be incorporated easily.

Sometimes people react badly to feedback because they don’t know what it means for them. They just want you to go away.

When you hang in there, knowing you are with them for the long haul, you are grounded when they react. Over time, because people know you are in their corner, they can come to welcome your investment in their development, which is more than just words.



Mary Schaefer
Mary Schaefer
Mary is a fierce advocate for developing workplaces where the human beings who happen to be employees, thrive. Her speaking, coaching, training, and writing all focus on making the most of what human beings can contribute to an organization through their distinctive energy and creativity, while at the same time meeting their own specific needs for meaningful work. As the principal of her own business, Mary is a guide to increase empowerment and cultivate productive manager/employee interactions. Drawing from her experience as an HR manager, her work centers on talent development, performance management, and a positive employee experience. She is a co-author of the book, "The Character Based Leader." Mary has presented at the Inspiring Women in STEM Conference and is also a TEDx speaker. Her clients include small businesses, nonprofit organizations, government agencies, and Fortune 500 companies. Mary has a master's degree in human resources management and is a certified HR professional. This Midwest farmer's daughter is a big fan of homegrown cantaloupes, gapingvoid art, and LinkedIn.

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  1. I have no doubt about the usefulness of the suggestions.
    The importance of spreading the culture of feedback within the corporate context is now recognized by most organizations. The difficulty in implementing this practice is that, to be applied effectively, it requires, in a certain way, an important change in the usual managerial and organizational practices. On the one hand the management, precisely because of the role it has always been invested in, tends to verticalise the exchange of evaluations, providing unilateral feedback to the collaborators in an almost instinctive and automatic way, because it is convinced of being in possession of the “know how” for its own previous experiences. To this is added, in terms of collaborators, the natural emotional “resistance” that people manifest, in particular the negative one. Promoting a culture of feedback requires first of all relational skills: the ability to put personal energies and qualities “on the net”, going beyond one’s comfort zone and being able to establish a relationship of trust with the other and authenticity. The result is a healthy and positive comparison for all that can bring enormous benefits in the business context in which it is realized.

    • I appreciate you taking the time to comment, Aldo. I agree that creating an organization-wide culture of feedback like I describe is challenging. I heartily support of what you say here: “Promoting a culture of feedback requires first of all relational skills.” I offer my suggestions to encourage leaders, despite imperfect systems or inhospitable cultures, to start by making a difference one employee at a time.

  2. Thanks for reminding us of how to ensure that we communicate effectively. I particularly liked your attention to context. I would expand it to include the timing of the feedback (not Friday afternoon at the close of business) and the setting (private and not rushed). I once got my performance review by going into my office and finding it on my chair. Needless to say, it was not productive.

    • Mary, thank you for adding the point about timing, environment and method. Yours is an excellent example of how NOT to deliver feedback. What a missed opportunity.

  3. Mary – bravo for this, it’s so spot on! For some people, interaction with HR or with anyone in a supervisory position – getting feedback or having any kind of interaction is immediately taken as negative. The relationship aspect to this is so important. If you reach out to an employee, and haven’t had any type of relationship and you want to schedule a one on one, that employee might be living in terror until the time that you can get together, as some people always interpret “meetings” even if they are completely innocent, and just for the purposes of getting acquainted, as something to be dreaded. They may think that the only time management gets together with employees is to dole out discipline or termination… Context is everything. It’s so important to establish rapport with people, to talk to as many people as you can or as many as it makes sense to, and talk about the weather, about how the Packers are doing (the only NFL team that truly matters…) about how they are doing outside of work and be able to talk to them about mundane things somewhat easily so that when it comes time to discuss other things, you have an “in” and that you can discuss anything. It’s one of the first things that I learned as a supervisor – establish rapport, have a relationship, and then other discussions do not have to seem like you are requesting to do a root canal or colonoscopy…

    • Tom, thanks for reinforcing the value of context – particularly about establishing a relationship, of some sort, a connection that works for the two of you. It requires true interest and paying attention. Maybe for another blog post 🙂 Thanks again for sharing your valuable experiences and observations.