3 Rules to Deliver the F-Word Correctly: FEEDBACK

May 21, 2012 § 3 Comments

The correct use of feedback can enhance employee engagement.  The improper use will damage it severely and often irreparably.  Do you deliver the F-Word correctly?

My daughter just graduated from college.  We held a party for her and she was helping us prepare the house and the food.  She was creating a fruit plate with a wide variety of cut fruit.  She is an artist and therefore incredibly creative.

I looked over and she had used a good deal of grapes as a border for the serving plate.  I asked her, “Why are you using so many grapes when we have so many different types of fruit?  I thought you were going to alternate the grapes with the pineapple, watermelon, etc.”

A few minutes passed.  She was silent. I looked over at her eyes full of tears.  She took my questions and observation as criticism.  In a soft and humble tone she asked me, “Would you rather do this Dad?”  I knew I had messed up.  I had damaged her motivation and creativity with just a few sentences. Some of you may think she was being overly sensitive but I believe in the communication maxim, “communication is the response I get.”  I therefore must take responsibility for the unintended response I received from my daughter.   I submit that leaders must embrace this communication maxim if they want to optimize and maintain employee engagement.

One of the most important skills a manager and leader must develop is the ability to know how and when to deliver feedback in order to maintain employee engagement.  Here are three great rules to help you deliver the F-Word correctly.

Feedback and Criticism are NOT the Same

For some unexplained reason the average manager rarely makes a distinction between feedback and criticism.  This is a serious mistake.  Take a moment and open up the dictionary.  Feedback is data from a process for the purpose of learning.  Criticism is opinion.  My daughter interpreted my comments about her fruit plate as criticism or opinion and she was correct.

Feedback, by definition, is direct observation or a review of data collected in a transparent and/or an “agreed upon” method.  For example, regarding my daughter, I could have said, “You put grapes around the entire perimeter of the fruit plate.”   While doing this I must also be aware of my tone of voice.  It should be neutral because data is neutral.

Another example: if someone is late I could tell him/her, “We were scheduled to meet at 2 PM and it is now 2:30 PM.  You are 30 minutes later than I expected.”  If you really want to deliver feedback keep this idea in mind: it is observable and the tone neutral should be neutral.  If either is missing, it can quickly become criticism and criticism can harm engagement.

Deliver Criticism Only with Permission

Sometimes we need to deliver criticism.  Sometimes we must give our opinion.  If you are going to do so, I recommend we name it what it is i.e. an opinion.  Furthermore, we must ask permission prior to delivery to avoid a negative response.  With my daughter I could have asked, “May I give you my opinion about the fruit plate?”  It’s not wrong to deliver criticism but how and when we do it is important.  The result we receive may not be what we expected or what we desired.  My daughter had tears because she took my criticism to heart.  It hurt her feelings.  Hurt feelings will most certainly damage engagement and motivation.  I wanted her to hear my opinion but instead she shut down. I can blame her for being overly sensitive or change my approach, ask her permission, and then deliver my opinion in a neutral tone.

Help Employees Manage Their Own

Employee engagement is improved when employees have control over their own performance feedback.  The best leaders help employees to find (or create) ways to track their own progress.  The best leaders avoid manager dependent feedback.  Manager dependent feedback (or opinion) means the employee must to wait to hear from the manager about how he/she is doing.  Manager dependent feedback usually does not enhance employee engagement because the employee feels controlled and/or dependent upon the all-knowing manager.

The best leaders willingly arrange for employees to track their own progress.  This autonomy and sense of freedom must be protected.


The best leaders deliver the F-Word in accurate, careful and frequent ways.  Poor managers often avoid giving feedback because they fear the tears (poor reactions from employees), they worry about arguments, and they are concerned about damaging motivation.   They should be concerned.  They often deliver feedback incorrectly.  But, if they appreciate the three rules (the difference between feedback and criticism, asking permission before criticizing, and empowering employees to collect their own feedback) their fears will fade and employee engagement will bloom.


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