HR Administration

Employee Feedback: Enabling a Career Path Starts With the Truth

By Kelly Imberman

Aug. 13, 2018

The annual performance review — with its assigned rating and compensation linkages — may be joining the graveyard of outdated management practices. performance appraisal career path

Yet the need to assess performance is very much alive in a world that emphasizes collaboration and distributed leadership. Indeed, the push for feedback may come more readily from employees as from management. Therein lies a challenge for some managers: being direct and honest.
Employees want (and deserve) to, in a general sense, “know where they stand.” Almost everyone intensely desires to improve their work and/or outcomes. They want honest feedback.

But let’s face it: few managers enjoy giving feedback, and even fewer are comfortable giving “negative” feedback. So stop thinking about The Big Feedback Conversation and start thinking about it as a short chat. Stop thinking big and start thinking small.
If you start small, you’ll develop trust with your colleague while also building up your own confidence. What is something the employee is doing well and should keep doing? Do they know it?

Similarly, what is something that is working against them and they should stop doing? Do they know that? Finally, what is something they could be doing to be more effective? Do they know to start doing it? Providing this sort of regular “keep, stop, start” input to your staff will let them know that you have their back, so when the time comes to provide more critical feedback, they’ll know you’re doing it because you’re looking out for them.

Employ a coaching model; find performance review examples; ask questions to lead employees to their own insights on what is working well for them, and what things are working against them. They’ll be more likely to act on these insights than if they’re hearing it just from you.

OK, I admit it, if someone told me something I didn’t like hearing, it might sting — at least momentarily. But if you’re being honest with the genuine intent to support my growth, this is not being hurtful; this is being helpful. And if I’m getting positive feedback and recognition for the things I’m doing well, it’s probably going to be a lot easier for me to hear about the things I’m not doing well.

I know many people who dread the thought of providing negative feedback and hurting someone’s feelings. In their effort to be kind, they may be doing their employees a disservice. Managers have to think of the long-term consequences both to the company and the employee if key issues are not addressed.

If, for example, I don’t tell Kelly now about an issue, how is she going to feel in six months or a year when it becomes a career-limiting experience for her? I’d rather tell her today, knowing it’s going to prevent her from having a bigger issue down the road and helping her career path. Consider various performance review examples and the influence each manager has in the workplace to affect positive change in an employee; feedback undelivered also has a powerful effect in its absence.

Effective feedback requires that you build trust that you start small with daily interactions, and you think about long-term consequences. Use a coaching framework that works for you. By being honest and empathetic, your employees can handle the truth.

Kelly Imberman is the executive director of Human Resources for the Sloan School of Management. Comment below or email


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