Why Leaders Struggle to Give Employees Helpful Feedback

By Lou Solomon

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Here’s a puzzling paradox. Leaders are uncomfortable giving their employees feedback in the workplace. Yet people thrive with constructive feedback; positive or negative.

At Interact Studio, we’ve watched top executives, emerging leaders, supervisors, and front-line managers light up with coaching and feedback. They take notes with enthusiasm.  They double-check for our meaning. They are hungry for all of it.

Providing Feedback After two days with us at Interact Studio, some clients tell us they’ve received more feedback than they ever have in the workplace. They tell us they often operate in a bubble, not really knowing if they’re doing well or falling behind.

This made us curious.  Just how much of a problem is this, really?

What Leaders Say About Their Discomfort with Giving Employees Feedback

In January, we joined with the Harris Poll to conduct an online survey of 1,120 employed U.S. workers, 616 of whom manage employees in the workplace. A stunning majority (69%) of managers say there is something about their role as a leader that makes them uncomfortable communicating with their employees.

In fact, the fear of hurting people’s feelings and facing drama and retribution is reaching crisis proportions in the workplace, with over a third (37%) of America’s business leaders reporting they are uncomfortable having to give direct feedback/criticism about their employee’s performance that they might respond badly to.

Where Leaders Fall Short

The results showed that leaders who manage employees in the workplace are uncomfortable on a number of communication fronts, including:

  • Demonstrating vulnerability (e.g., sharing mistakes they’ve learned from) (20%)
  • Recognizing employee achievements (e.g., giving praise for a job well done) (20%)
  • Delivering the “company line” in a genuine way (20%)
  • Giving clear directions (19%)
  • Crediting others with having good ideas (16%)
  • Speaking face to face rather than by email (16%)

Establishing A Feedback Culture

These results point to a breach in genuine communication in the workplace.  With the stakes being what they are, leaders have to turn this around.  We have some ideas about how to do that.


Note:  This is the first in a two-part series on feedback and the reluctance of leaders to communicate authentically. Next Up, more surprising statistics, and Guidelines for Authentic Feedback.

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