How Withholding Feedback Hurts Your Employees and Why It Matters

“I wish my manager had told me that the moment it came into her mind.”

The more leaders I work with, the more I’m struck by how critically important it is to give clear, timely, granular feedback—and by how seldom it’s done.

Recently I worked with two different leaders who failed to be promoted when they expected promotions, and when I spoke to their managers, I discovered that there was critical feedback that had never been shared. In one case, the feedback had not be shared for years.  As a result, both of these leaders were bewildered, de-motivated, and were contemplating leaving the company.  These were valuable employees who would have been difficult to replace.

These stories are not unusual, and a lack of good feedback is one of the most widespread problems I see in organizations.  It’s a pattern that plays out across different companies, different industries, and different sectors.  And given that feedback, when delivered well, improves performance and increases engagement, it’s puzzling how this remains a near-universal problem in organizations.

While this seems to me a great injustice, I do understand why feedback conversations don’t happen, or don’t happen well. Managers avoid giving important feedback because they’re nervous about damaging an important relationship, or they fear their employee may become a flight risk, or that there may be some legal implications of the feedback they have in mind.  They may allow themselves to be distracted or “too busy” to provide feedback, or they may assess (usually wrongly) that their direct report is too fragile to be able to handle the “real feedback.”  In many cases managers are not skilled at giving feedback that is clear, timely, actionable.  They may not take the time to really get clear in their own minds what the feedback is, and so when they attempt to share it, it’s equally unclear to their direct report.

Think about it: You manage someone, and they’re doing something that limits their success.  Or they are not doing something that’s essential for them to be fully successful.  Many times, they don’t know that there’s a problem.  If you don’t tell them, how will they find out?

In spite of many reasons not to, giving feedback is a must for managers.  If you want motivation to give feedback consider the following:

  • If the situation was reversed, what would you want your boss to do, and why?
  • How many years do you want to live with the issue?
  • If they don’t improve, how will it hold them back?  Do you want to be responsible for that?
  • If they do improve significantly, what’s the potential impact for their career? For the business? For your happiness?

When I’m working with leaders on their ability to give feedback, I teach a three-step model:

  • One, talk about the behavior with your direct report. That is, give specific, concrete, and granular examples of what the feedback is about.
  • Two, talk about the impact of that behavior, or, there may be several impacts.
  • Three, make a request for the kind of change – the specific change – you’d like to see in the future. Or, if you’re using this model to give positive feedback, you can make a request for what you’d like to see continue in the future.

When going through these steps, it’s important to remember that the person you’re giving feedback to may disagree every step of the way.

For example, they may disagree with your observations, and they may disagree with the impact that you ascribe to them. That’s why it’s critically important that you’re prepared to practice good, active listening every step of the way. That means hearing their reaction, even if it’s defensive, and acknowledging it. “Hey, it sounds like you don’t see it that way. You think that this happened differently. Is that right?”

For more details on the three steps and how to deal with defensiveness, please refer to: Feedback: A Recipe for Improvement

Just because you acknowledge that they have a different point of view doesn’t mean you’re agreeing with them. It just means that you’re listening well. You can come back to your point and reinforce it. But by listening, you’ll help them to hear you. One of the critical things when you’re giving feedback, especially if it’s a difficult feedback or if it’s a delicate situation is you want to share the feedback in a way that people can really hear. Good listening helps a great deal with that.

While many managers are afraid to hurt a relationship by not providing feedback, it will ultimately be more damaging to the direct report and the company if feedback is withheld or poorly delivered in the long run. Think about your direct reports.  Is there someone you are withholding important feedback from?  How might that be impacting their performance and your perception of them?  Make a commitment to share that feedback with them.