How to Get Employees to Improve? Issues with Feedback

Performance Management (Appraisals)
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Jaap de Jonge
Editor, Netherlands

How to Get Employees to Improve? Issues with Feedback

As a manager, you are trying to improve the performance of your team members. And so you should. It's quite common to think that giving your employees critical yet constructive feedback on their weaknesses is valuable to them and to their employer. And indeed for a simple, factual task this actually works.

But science is teaching us that such thinking is actually wrong if we are talking about complex stuff like strategic thinking, managing, decision-making, leading, conducting job interviews, planning, marketing, selling, purchasing, negotiating, coaching, assertiveness, etc.

In an article worth reading, Buckingham and Goodall explain there are 3 reasons why telling people what we think of their performance and how they should do it better does not work for complex jobs, tasks or skills:
  1. Telling people what we think of their performance and how they should improve it does not enable, but actually hinders them to learn and grow. Because we are poor at objectively observing and rating others. So we are unlikely to provide the right information.
  2. You can not teach other persons abilities they are missing. Simply telling what we think is missing and should be improved is not conducive to learning:
    • Neurologically, people learn easier in areas in which they already have good ability.
    • Also, a person learns easier towards what he believes he is already doing well.
    • And if we receive attention to our strengths from others this catalyzes learning, but if we receive such attention from others to our weaknesses it smothers it. We resists information from other people that tell us we are doing something wrong.
  3. Great performance (in complex tasks) is not universal, but personal. The way excellence is achieved is different for different people. Each person achieves it in a unique, individual way.
💡How CAN you get your employees to improve? Take 4 steps:


  1. Look for excellent outcomes (results) and highlight/signal it. Say something like: "That! Yes, that!" or simply "That! Wow!" In this way, you focus the attention of the employee on what she is already doing well.
  2. Share what you saw from him and how it made you feel (do not judge, rate). Say something like: "This is what you made me realize", or even better: "Did you see what you just did?" Again, you focus the attention of the employee on what he is already doing well. This also works the other way around when you are receiving feedback: If your boss says: "Well done!" then ask: "What precisely?" This allows you to distinguish and focus on what was so excellent.
  3. Consider spotting excellent behavior/results from team members your top priority. Unless you want to run your department all by yourself...
  4. Use the present, past and future (in that order). Ask: "What did you just do that worked so fantastic?" And: "In the past, what did you do that worked well?" And: "What do you already know that will probably work?"
Giving feedback in the right way is an essential skill for any manager and leader. Focusing the attention of the receiver on what he/she is already doing well is much more effective than trying to teach skills he/she is perhaps missing.
Source: Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall, "The Feedback Fallacy", HBR Mar-Apr 2019, pp.92-101.

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