Better Employee Conversations Dos & Don’ts

Contributed by Debbie Shotwell*

You may have heard the phrase that “feedback is a gift” and wondered if you could exchange it like an unwanted pair of socks. Many of us would say that you can keep your feedback “gift,” thank you very much.

But I hope to show you that through thoughtful conversations with your employees, delivering feedback can actually be the gift that keeps on giving. Mastering the art of giving (and receiving) feedback can lead to richer employee conversations, which in turn lead to stronger manager-employee relationships.

Feedback feeds employee engagement

The art of conversation takes practice and study. It’s also a great tool in the manager toolbox.

Feedback that’s done right has a direct impact on employee engagement. When a manager spends time developing their feedback skills and then delivers that feedback at the most opportune time, the results can be powerful: the employee feels valued for their contributions and they feel a sense of trust in their work relationships.

So, we’re all great conversationalists, right? Apparently not. Gallup research shows that just 27 percent of employees think the feedback they’re getting now helps them do their work better. And studies indicate that if managers do dedicate themselves to better conversations through coaching, the results are impressive. According to Bersin by Deloitte, organizations with excellent cultural support for coaching had a 75 percent higher rating for talent management results than those with no or weak support for coaching. Furthermore, they had 13 percent stronger business results and 39 percent stronger employee results.

Here are three dos and don’ts for any manager, starting with their next conversation.


  1. Don’t use the sandwich approach
    We know you mean well, but it’s really not a good idea to play “good cop/bad cop” in the same conversation. It seems like sandwiching negative feedback between two pieces of good feedback would make the hard part go down easier. But the sandwich approach doesn’t work. It can also damage your relationship with your direct reports.When constructive feedback is followed by more positive feedback, it can distort the importance of the feedback about areas to improve. This is confusing for employees. Your direct reports also might forget about what you said about their positive performance, and then the meeting is counterproductive.
  1. Don’t forget to ask for feedback
    When speaking with employees, strengthen your relationship with them by asking for feedback. It’s not as scary as it sounds! Ask your employees how you can support them. Some questions might include:
  • What should I keep doing?
  • What should I stop doing?
  • What should I start doing?Make sure to really listen to what they say—it’s a simple thing to do, but so many of us don’t actively listen. Once you’ve heard what they have to say, act on it where appropriate.
  1. Don’t skip constructive feedback
    “Negative feedback” sounds so negative. We suggest calling these conversations “opportunities to give constructive feedback.” There’s no doubt it’s a challenging assignment even for experienced managers. But hopefully through holding 1:1 meetings (more on that, below!) and actively listening to your employees, a solid and trusting relationship has been cultivated.

Constructive feedback is best given:

  • As soon as possible after an event
  • When the behavior has a negative impact on the team
  • When it will improve an employee’s skills
  • When you see an issue with performance

Better Employee Conversations Dos & Don’ts


  1. Do give positive feedback
    Offering positive feedback is definitely easier than offering constructive feedback. Here are some ways to make sure the delivery lands where you want it to.Positive feedback is best given:
  • As soon after the behavior or action as possible
  • When good work and resourceful behavior made a positive impact
  • When it will improve or reinforce a person’s skills
  • When your employee is expecting it

 Better Employee Conversations Dos & Don’ts











  1. Do follow these conversational rules when offering feedback:
  • Specific ‒ Don’t generalize. Clearly tell the employee what they are doing well, and why you value the behavior (impact on team, organization, customer, etc.) or what they need to change/improve and why (impact on team, organization, customer, etc.).
  • Honest ‒ Tell the employee as honestly and accurately as you can what they’re doing well, and where they can improve. Don’t assume they know what you are talking about. Use concrete examples.
  • Timely ‒ For greatest impact, give feedback soon after the behavior is exhibited. The only exception to this is when emotions are running high and need to be allowed time to settle in order to facilitate communication.
  • Helpful ‒ Your goal is to help the employee improve their performance. Explain why a desired behavior is important, and when needed, provide suggestions for how to behave differently next time, as well as support for learning and development.
  • Consistent ‒ Employees should get some form of feedback every week. Be generous with your praise and recognition of desired behaviors; it will encourage more. Be consistent and persistent with your observations about poor performance; it takes time to learn new, more effective ways of working.
  1. Do hold regular meetings with employee’s
    Regular check-ins with employees can work wonders. These conversations are pure gold: you’ll hear about what’s really going on with your employee. When it’s time to give positive feedback, you can offer it at these 1:1 meetings.Here are some things to shoot for in these important meetings:
  • Ask questions
  • Clarify expectations
  • Share progress
  • Give feedback on their performance
  • Get feedback on how you’re doing as a manager, and
  • Discuss anything else your employees need to support their work and development.

Here’s a cheat sheet for a 1:1 meeting: Cover items such as great news for the week, an update on goals and important tasks for the week ahead.

Master upward feedback conversations

Did you know employees can give feedback, too? It might be a bit awkward at first, but it’s important for building relationships where you feel comfortable giving feedback. Here are some tips for giving upward feedback:

  1. If it’s not requested from you directly, ask if your manager would like your feedback.
    “I have a perspective on the outcome of our last team meeting. Would you like to hear it?”
  1. If so, share what you observed or heard, and the associated impact.
    “There were a few questions left unanswered at the end of the meeting. I’m concerned the team doesn’t have all the information they need from you to complete the project on time.”
  1. Ask questions to correct any assumptions.
    “Is there a reason we didn’t address the questions during the meeting?”
  2. Ask if the feedback was helpful.
    “Do you think my feedback will help with future team meetings?”









Most of us talk a good bit during the work day. We chat around the coffee pot, in hallways and in meetings. Use the dos and don’ts in this story to make the most out of your words at work. Good luck as you improve feedback conversations with your employees and upward feedback conversations with your manager.

*As the Chief People Officer of Saba Software, Debbie Shotwell is responsible for human resources, learning and development, employee communications and community relations.

Connect with Debbie on LinkedIn.


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