What's the least fun part of being a leader? Giving feedback--especially negative feedback--to employees is high on the list. Short of actually firing people, it's the most uncomfortable thing any leader has to do.

But it's also one of the most important things you do, and it's essential to get it right. Giving effective feedback--feedback that actually helps employees improve their performance--makes your company better at everything it does. It's one thing that all great leaders do well.

Joanne Wells, manager of the Learning Center of Excellence at talent management software company Halogen Software, has some great advice about how to give employees feedback effectively. Here it is for you to use next time you have to give negative feedback:

1. Be authentic.

Don't say anything in a performance conversation with an employee that isn't genuinely honest. If you're trying to manipulate, or soften the blow with false praise, chances are employees will see through it. Even if they don't, you're not helping them, or yourself, by being anything less than honest.

2. Remember, your purpose is to help.

"Feedback should be ongoing and focused on improving performance and helping employees grow, rather than showing employees what they did wrong," Wells says. In fact, she says, you should make sure to also tell them what they did right. "If employees know what behaviors lead to success, they will replicate them consistently which will help encourage high performance."

3. Have a dialog, not a monologue.

Make sure your feedback session is a two-way conversation, Wells advises. "It's important to listen to what the employee has to say. We know employees' relationships with their managers have a big impact on their engagement. Making sure they feel heard helps build a stronger relationship."

4. Stick to the facts.

"Feedback conversations should be devoid of personal feelings and bias," Wells says. "If the person delivering the feedback is emotional, the recipient is likely to get defensive and shut down." Instead, she advises, describe exactly the behavior you or others have observed that you would like to see change. Say when it happened. And then explain what the impact of that behavior was on your company or team.

5. Talk about what to do next.

Once you've described the behavior that needs to change and its impact, have a discussion about what changes you expect to see going forward. It's important for employees to understand exactly what those expectations are. "Collaborate with the employee to determine what actions are necessary to remedy or reinforce behaviors," Wells says. She also recommends using a development plan to outline so that you and the employee can lay out exactly what areas he or she will work on going forward, and what changes will happen when.

6. Balance bad with good.

I once had a contractor call me out about the fact that every time she did a job for me, all I ever mentioned was what had gone wrong. It really made me stop and think because in fact I loved her work but had never bothered to say so. It's easy to focus on the things that need fixing, but don't fall into that trap.

"Your employees are less likely to be receptive to constructive feedback if they know every time you talk to them they will be hit with a list of all the things they are doing wrong," Wells says. Keep in mind that the goal of feedback is to help the employees improve their performance. They'll be better able to do that if they know what they're doing right, and need to keep doing, as well as what they need to change. (If they aren't doing anything right, you should be having a whole different conversation.)

In fact, Wells recommends a ratio of six pieces of positive feedback for every piece of negative feedback you give. "And always be honest with your intention and mindful of your tone," she adds. "Employees are more likely to be receptive to your feedback if they know you have their best interests in mind."

7. Don't wait.

"Ensure that you are delivering feedback when it is timely and relevant, not days, weeks, or months later," Wells says. However, she advises, if you're feeling emotional about the issue, it's probably best to wait until you've cooled down and can discuss the problem calmly.

But don't save up your comments, whether positive or negative, she says. Make time to give regular feedback--doing it frequently will take the fear out of the process for both you and your employees. "Performance management shouldn't be a once-a-year thing," she says. "It should happen year round."

Published on: Aug 18, 2016