First Rule of Employee Feedback: Don’t Expect Them to Be Mind Readers

Employee feedback

The business case for employee feedback is that it helps people know whether they are on track or not.

As leaders, how we provide feedback can either serve our businesses well — or provide no value at all.

Consider employees who are going about their day, doing their job. They think they are doing what is expected of them. They may receive one of the following categories of employee feedback:

  • direct feedback (words from their superior)
  • indirect feedback (attitude from their superior)
  • nothing

Let’s put ourselves in our employees’ shoes for a minute, and explore the impact of each type of feedback:


To receive nothing in the way of employee feedback is probably the worst situation, because it has no good impact. How can employees know whether they are doing a good job or what is expected if they hear nothing?

I’ve heard many employees say that they’d like to be told if they are doing something wrong. They feel that they don’t know something is wrong — or they wouldn’t be doing it.  I wonder if their leaders make the assumption that the employee is intentionally doing something wrong, as opposed to being misinformed or misguided.  Are these leaders thinking the employee just doesn’t want to do a better job?  Is that why they don’t even bother trying to give feedback?

This is why it’s so important for leaders to share feedback consistently.

I’m not talking about the pat on the back, feel good type of employee feedback. I’m talking about constructive input so that those who are rowing know they are going in the right direction.

It’s what’s best for your organization. When there is a goal to be reached, communicating how well everyone is moving toward that goal is essential.

The leader’s job is to establish a consistent feedback system in an organization so that good behavior is continued and bad behavior is corrected.

Indirect Feedback – attitude from their superior

Indirect feedback is when the feedback is coming non-verbally.  The employee picks up on the leader’s attitude.

If the attitude is positive it can be almost as effective as direct feedback. The employee can get the sense that they are doing the right thing. I still think words are best but attitude matters.

However, indirect feedback is as bad as no feedback if the attitude is negative.  The employee gets the very strong sense that their superior is unhappy with their performance but doesn’t know why. They feel threatened and insecure. Not only can this impact their performance but has a tendency to permeate through the organization and influence the behavior and attitude of others.

I go back to goals here. If the organization has a goal it is trying to reach then the leadership should do everything it can to move the team toward that goal. Communicating directly about the progress or challenges people are experiencing is the best way to continue to work toward the goal. Just speak up; tell the person where they are missing the mark and work out a plan of action. That is what is best for the organization.

Direct Feedback – words from their superior

Direct employee feedback — telling the employee how he or she is doing — is the best form of feedback as long as it is offered consistently. Too many organizations rely on an annual review. That isn’t very helpful if something is wrong halfway into that year.

Create a system for providing consistent feedback to the team – positive and negative — as it is happening.

My choice for a feedback plan looks like this:

If something isn’t going right it is critical to provide that feedback immediately – in the moment. The goal here is to address the problem and achieve resolution. Waiting doesn’t do anyone any good – least of all the organization.

When things are going right, have a program you follow to acknowledge the successes and contributions of team members. When you have a program or system you’ll be more likely to ensure the team members know they are doing well. That positive feedback has a ripple effect. It propels people to do more; to continue to do well. Knowing they are heading the right direction gives staff members the security to keep moving. Moreover, people are more enthusiastic to participate and contribute when they are aware of how they are doing.

Work toward your goals with words of praise and constructive criticism. When the goal is paramount the words come easily. It’s what is best for all. Don’t leave your company’s future to chance or uncertainty.

Feedback image via Shutterstock


Diane Helbig Diane Helbig is a Professional Coach and the president of Seize This Day. Diane is a Contributing Editor on COSE Mindspring, a resource website for small business owners, as well as a member of the Top Sales World Experts Panel at Top Sales World.

7 Reactions
  1. People like to understand why something is happening AND have the ability to change/affect it when it needs improvement. The only feedback that will clearly accomplish both of these things is direct communication concerning factors that are within the employee’s control. Telling them that business has been slow because of the economy is not helpful because it’s out of their control. Telling them that customers are having to wait too long is helpful when discussed with a plan to improve things.

  2. Nice article Diane. I feel that employee feedback can offer meaningful insights on how a business is run. It is especially important to find out when something is going wrong in order to take the feedback of board and act on it.
    An organization should collect feedback at least on a yearly basis in order to acknowledge what is working and what is going wrong. After all employees are the best asset of a company.

  3. I like your article Diane! I think that a culture of open communication can nurture the practice of feedback. But I also think that feedback should be both ways. Don’t you think so?

  4. I once had a manager bring up an incident during my annual review 4 months after the fact. I couldn’t believe she hadn’t mentioned it earlier! I vowed that day to never be the kind of manager that would wait that long to give feedback…good or bad.

  5. I totally agree that feedback from the staff to the leadership is critical to success – the subject of the next article!