Mastering the Art of Employee Feedback

Would you rather discuss an veterinary team member's performance and behavior at work or be the one assigned to restrain the hissing, spitting fractious cat? Many veterinary employers - whether in Los Angeles, Chicago or Philadelphia - may prefer the feral cat—we’ve got protective equipment and drugs that can help manage that. When it comes to giving employee feedback, we don’t have the same protection. It can be awkward, uncomfortable, and emotional. But feedback is essential to maintain an engaged, productive team.

Feedback comes in many forms. Positive feedback, celebrating successes and praising exemplary behaviors, is usually easy to provide and can be given in the moment and revisited later. When it comes to negative feedback, including addressing a behavior that is detrimental to the individual or team’s performance or skill sets that need improvement, the conversations can be more difficult. Here are some ways to ease the stress of providing feedback and maximizing the positive impact your feedback can have on team members.

Be Prompt: Feedback should be delivered in a timely manner.

Instead of waiting for a regular, infrequent performance review, address issues as they arise, especially if staff, client, or patient safety are at risk. It can be extremely demoralizing to a team member who feels they’ve been doing a decent job to suddenly receive an avalanche of “should have done” and “need to do better” in a single review. These employees are likely to be overwhelmed or feel blindsided by the large amount of negative feedback. They may find it difficult to respond in a productive way. By addressing behaviors or performance concerns as they arise, you allow employees a continual opportunity for improvement.

Additionally, data from Gallup Polls suggest that if employees only receive feedback at an annual performance review, it can actually be detrimental to their performance. The same research shows employees are more engaged when they receive regular feedback. And, when asked, most employees say they prefer immediate feedback.

While it is important to provide prompt feedback, make sure that you are not delivering feedback from a reactive, emotional state. It can be easy to critique a colleague or employee for how they behaved in a difficult situation. Your ability to offer constructive feedback is limited when you are upset over the situation as well. Brené Brown, author of Dare to Lead, has developed a checklist for team leaders to review before approaching someone with feedback.

Another consideration for the timeline of feedback is the employee’s own preferences. For some employees, asking to set up a meeting several days in advance is anxiety-inducing. Ask employees what their preference is for receiving feedback and be respectful of their requests when possible.

Be Clear: Feedback is essential for growth.

According to Brown, “Clear is kind.” In other words, when we are clear with expectations and give honest evaluations, we are being kind to our team members because we aren’t leaving them in the dark. Feedback provides opportunities for growth. If a team member isn’t aware of a problem, they can’t be aware there is a need for improvement.

Don’t withhold feedback because it is uncomfortable. Do take some time to prepare to give feedback that is specific and actionable. Include the following points in your discussion:

  • What is the behavior or skill of concern? Include specific, recent examples.
  • How will altering the behavior or investing time in skill development improve workflow, team dynamics, and/or patient safety?
  • Allow time for the employee to discuss the motivations behind the behavior, extenuating circumstances, and their own concerns around the issue. This will help you to work with the employee to develop a plan and set goals moving forward.
  • How will you as a manager or supervisor support your employee during this time? This may include investing time or money in continuing education, providing an on-site mentor, or offering new methods of accountability.
  • On what timeline do you expect to see skill advancement? When setting an advancement plan with your employee, make sure goals are SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-based). Also discuss when and how feedback will be delivered and follow-through on this.

Be Flexible: Feedback can be difficult to receive.

While it can be awkward to give feedback in many cases, it can be even more uncomfortable to receive it, especially when it is unexpected. It is easy to take feedback personally, especially when it addresses a behavior or personal characteristic that has become problematic. The way feedback is delivered can make a big difference in how it is received.

When you approach an employee with feedback, consider having an initial brief, private conversation outlining the area of concern. Then allow the employee to choose whether they would like to continue the conversation immediately or take a few hours, at most overnight, to digest the initial conversation before having a longer meeting regarding the issue. This will allow employees the ability to have some control in the process and better manage their own emotions surrounding what can be a sensitive subject.

Are you ready to give your employees feedback?

You may never be fully comfortable providing feedback to an employee, but it is a necessary and critically important part of leadership. By providing clear and prompt feedback in a compassionate way, you will prove yourself to be an effective leader and move your team towards becoming the best that it can be. Maybe you’ll even find you prefer it to restraining that fractious cat after all.

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