Employees are great to have around. They’re the ones who are helping your business soar, producing great work and keeping your customers happy.

Darn it, though, they’re human. They mess up sometimes, and it’s your problem to get them back on track. You want to be fair but tough, but not so tough that you demoralize them.

Great feedback comes when the employee knows why you’re giving it, understands what you’re saying and is inspired to change. If you’re only communicating when you’ve noticed a problem, you’re too late. You have to prepare by creating the right expectations up front:

  • Here’s what your job is.
  • Here’s how I will judge your success in the job.
  • Here’s what you can expect from me for support, advice and feedback.

All of the above is mostly just telling, not listening. But if an employee is to be open to hearing your feedback when the need arises, you need to form a real basis for a trusting relationship. The discussion needs to continue:

  • It’s important for us to be honest with each other.
  • I need to hear about issues before they become big problems, because my job is to make sure things flow as smoothly as possible.
  • That’s also why I’ll give you feedback and direction occasionally, because it will help our group to be most productive.
  • What do you need from me?
  • How would you like me to give you feedback?

This last question is especially powerful. No matter how she answers, the employee is giving you verbal permission to give her advice in a certain way. Later, when you do exactly that, she’ll be much more open to listening to what you have to say.

You don’t want to focus on just the problems a worker has. People will be more motivated when they receive support and encouragement, and you’ll be building your level of trust. Later, if you need to have a harsher conversation, he will understand that within the context of your generally supportive relationship.

Critical feedback needs to be confidential, honest, appropriate, timely and specific.

  • Confidential: There’s nothing worse than embarrassing an employee in front of his peers; it just raises emotional barriers to admitting and resolving a mistake.
  • Honest: Don’t redefine the problem. If the actual issue is that the employee did something differently than you would have, be open to the possibility that her way might have been just as good, possibly better.
  • Appropriate: It can be tempting to magnify a problem in order to justify giving a harsher message. Avoid this, and remember that the objective is to come to a useful resolution, and avoid future problems.
  • Timely: Nobody wants to hear about problems long after they could have been addressed. Talk with your employee as soon as you’ve become aware of the issue, while they can still do something to improve the situation.
  • Specific: You need to talk about the actual issue at hand, not just some vaguely connected opinions and observations. Don’t pile on additional frustrations, unless they actually help to resolve the problem.

There’s a popular technique for giving criticism known as the “feedback sandwich.” The idea is that you sandwich the negative information in between two other positive messages in order to make it more palatable.

Even though this may have been effective 50 years ago, I’m not a fan of it anymore. The problem is that most employees know the pattern, and focus their energies on looking for the negative message. Even when there’s no criticism, they tend to disregard the positive feedback – the opposite of what you’d like!

My advice is to simply be straightforward and honest. If there’s an issue, get to the point, and then help the employee to move to resolution as painlessly as possible.

That’s what you’d prefer if you were on the receiving end.

Carl Dierschow is a Small Fish Business Coach based in Fort Collins. His website is www.smallfish.us.

Copyright © 2012 Northern Colorado Business Report by Biz West Media.