The Science of Employee Feedback
Our tips on how school leaders can give meaningful, quality feedback to help employees learn and grow
One of your major roles as a superintendent is to serve as your district’s chief culture officer—and often the chief of instruction, too. In both cases, there is a common denominator to success: the ability to give meaningful, quality feedback. After all, without it, improvement and growth can rarely happen.
But when it comes to actually giving effective feedback to employees—not just students—school leaders usually receive very little training. At some point in your pedagogical career, you probably learned about the idea of the “feedback sandwich,” where you position a constructive criticism in between two compliments. While this may have been the beginning of your education on giving effective feedback, it shouldn’t be the end. For the past decade, studies have shown that not all employee feedback is productive; in fact, some feedback can actually be counterproductive by almost every metric.
With this knowledge, it’s probably no surprise that many managers dread giving feedback, even if it’s only slightly negative. But research shows that people actually crave constructive feedback and wish they received it more often. According to a survey from Joblist, 33.4% of employees report a desire for more employer feedback from their managers. Take it from Harry Kramer of Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management: “Good managers know that feedback is a gift to their employees.”
Getting feedback right is critical, both for your district’s overall organizational health and for your relationships with your employees. And while giving effective feedback is an art to be honed over time, there are plenty of science-based tips that can help you get there.
Tip #1: Root your employee feedback in trust.
Just because employees generally wish they got more feedback doesn’t mean they enjoy receiving it in the moment. As an experienced manager, it’s probably no surprise to you that negative feedback is nearly impossible for most employees to accept. According to research published in the scientific journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, “People have been shown to cope with negative feedback by disputing it, lowering their goals, reducing commitment, misremembering or reinterpreting the feedback to be more positive, and engaging in self-esteem repair, none of which are likely to motivate efforts to do a better job next time.” Of course, this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t give constructive feedback—it just means that you have to do it the right way.
How do you get past people’s natural inclination to dismiss negative feedback? The answer is trust. According to writer Mark McMillon, most people tune out feedback they don’t feel they deserve, but this is less often the case when they receive feedback from someone they trust. While you can’t develop trust overnight, rooting your feedback in a relationship of trust allows you to avoid potential dismissal of your perspective and offers your employee the opportunity to grow.
As you work to build a trusting relationship with an employee, you can’t begin with criticism. According to Jenna Rhodes, a school administrator and neuroscience expert from Georgia’s Crisp County Schools, the first conversation you have with an employee shouldn’t be related to feedback at all. “They have to understand you as a person and an administrator,” Rhodes says. “They have to know that while you have standards that apply to all teachers, your feedback is just to help them grow.”
In rooting yourself in trust, you’re also opening the door for feedback to become a two-way conversation. After all, honest feedback from employees is vital to understanding how the rest of your organization perceives you. Of course, your employees are likely to have feedback about aspects of their jobs beyond you, too. Take it from Business News Daily: “Smart leaders know that a strong company culture and good workplace relationships are founded on open, honest input from everyone in the organization.”
The higher up in your district you are, the more important it becomes to stay in touch with the staff who are doing the day-to-day work. Understanding this perspective is critical if you want to build a culture of trust and continuous improvement that permeates your district at all levels.
Tip #2: Be quick and clear.
As an educator, you may remember that a positive or negative consequence is most meaningful to children when it happens as close to the inciting event as possible. As it turns out, adults are pretty much the same. In general, you want to give your feedback pretty quickly—within no more than a week of an incident.
But consistency matters, too. According to a 2022 Gallup poll, employees who have received meaningful feedback within the past week are almost four times more likely to be engaged than other employees. In fact, many organizations engage in something called “continuous feedback,” where regular feedback cycles, sometimes as often as weekly, negate the need to hold sporadic check-ins.
Committing to quick feedback also makes you more likely to address a specific moment or situation, rather than vaguely remarking on a long-term observation. When you are bothered by something that you’ve observed in an employee, you are particularly susceptible to a phenomenon called “confirmation bias,” where you only notice incidents that validate your opinion. Focusing instead on a particular instance makes your feedback less likely to be skewed by any preexisting opinions, which will also help your employees understand your perspective.
Dr. Matthew X. Joseph is the director of hiring, evaluation, and supervision at Brockton Public Schools in Massachusetts. For him, teaching others how to better give feedback is more than a vocation—it’s a passion. Part of Joseph’s job is helping principals and other administrators learn to give stronger critiques to the educators they’re coaching—in other words, giving feedback on giving feedback.
In his experience as a coach, Joseph has seen school leaders struggle most in two major areas: not being specific enough and not making it clear how the recipient can best improve. Many administrators, he says, worry about how their feedback will be received and therefore draw the conversation out to make it feel less negative. What happens, though, is that the recipient leaves the conversation with only a watered-down understanding of what needs to change. “You want someone to walk away knowing exactly what you want them to improve upon,” Joseph explains, “and that means distilling your feedback into just a few sentences that are easy to understand.”
Being clear also means not being afraid to have difficult conversations. According to Rhodes, this is the single biggest challenge of giving feedback. “No one wants to make anyone feel uncomfortable,” she says, “so we end up coming up with ways to get around it. Then, both the administrator and the teacher leave the conversation feeling uncertain because the administrator wasn’t direct enough.”
Tip #3: Focus on the future.
When most people think of feedback, they imagine one-directional conversations, but recent research tells us that effective feedback should actually be much different. In a Harvard Business Review survey of nearly 4,000 employees, people were more likely to rate their managers highly on their ability to give honest feedback if they also rated their managers as careful listeners.
Think back to our earlier discussions about trust—giving your employee an opportunity to feel heard makes them less likely to perceive your negative feedback as unwarranted or off-base. You may also be able to get further insights into the challenges your employee is facing, and thus have a clearer understanding of how to support them going forward.
If your employees feel understood, they are also more likely to check back in with you as they work to address whatever constructive feedback you’ve given them. Feedback should be rooted in the hope of continuous improvement, but this won’t be the case without a relationship of both trust and mutual understanding. Being a leader who listens—and therefore understands—is an authentic way to open the door to the trust you need for honest feedback to land (see Tip #1).
When giving feedback, the last thing you want is for the other person to walk away from the conversation feeling hopeless or unsure about how to move forward. To avoid this, let your employee know that now that you’ve discussed the problem at hand, you are ready for your relationship to move on. The employee needs to know that you’re more concerned with what they do with your feedback in the future than whatever happened in the past.
In building this mindset for growth, it’s also important to focus on an employee’s actions rather than who they are as a person. “We all know it’s a lot harder to change yourself than it is to change the way you approach a task,” Joseph explains. “You want to help your employee understand that they are valued as a person, and that value is separate from their work as an employee.” To you, this may seem like a given—but according to the 2022 Gallup State of the Workplace survey, only 21% of employees feel that their managers care about their opinions and recognize their work. With this in mind, you should make it clear to your employee that while you may have specific, constructive feedback for them, you recognize and appreciate their value in your organization.
Whatever the content of your conversation, be sure to end on a positive note. Praise your employee on something you’ve noticed they do well, or express your excitement at whatever steps they’ve committed to for the future. Regardless, you want them to leave the room knowing that their work is valued and that whatever is going on right now, the future’s looking bright.
Brittany Keil is a writer and researcher at SchoolCEO and can be reached at email@example.com.Subscribe below to stay connected with SchoolCEO!