A perfect time to give feedback doesn’t exist – but some times are better than others. In deciding when to give feedback to a direct report, consider these 4 things.
“When is the right time to give feedback to an employee?” A manager asked me this last week during a workshop I gave at the Business of Software Conference.
“Sometimes, I want to give feedback but I’m worried it’s going to come across as too petty, or that I’m nitpicking. Should I wait until there’s a time when it’s about something a bit bigger? Or should I give the feedback immediately to them, regardless? Is there ever a right time to give to feedback?”
I told him that he wasn’t going to like my answer: It depends.
Depending on who the person is, what the feedback is, what is going on in the work environment, and even what mental state you are in – all are factors in to when to give feedback to an employee. Choosing the timing well is important. It has big impact to how likely the person is going to change their behavior based on your feedback, going forward.
From the research conducted over the past few years and our own data collected across 15,000+ people who use Know Your Team, here’s what to consider about exactly when to give feedback.
#1. In all cases: Ask your audience.
The most assuring answer to the question of “When to give feedback?” can be found in figuring out what the other person’s preferred time is to receive feedback.
We often forget that each employee has individual preferences as to how they work and communicate – often different than our own. So asking: “When do you prefer to receive feedback? (A) Right away (B) Later in the day, when I’ve got open time (C) Next day, when I’ve had time to prepare or (D) Later in the week, when I’ve had time to prepare” can help clear the air.
Perhaps your employee was scarred by a former boss who would give debilitating feedback incessantly, and so they’re conditioned to want at least a few days heads up before you deliver feedback. Or maybe they’ve always worked in a work environment where quick feedback is shared immediately, multiple times a day, and that’s the established norm for them.
Whatever their answer might be, it’s up to you to figure out what their baseline and expectation around when to give feedback is.
Sometimes, though, an employee might not exactly know what their preferences are. Read on to learn when to give feedback in other cases.
#2: If the feedback is small: Heed the urgency of now.
For most feedback that comes to mind, usually, the best time to give feedback is shortly after the moment has occurred. Why? The longer you wait, the longer what you didn’t share is still affecting the way you think – and affecting the way the other person acts.
Countless research has supported that delays in feedback hurt performance and learning, especially around course-correction. But you likely already have experienced what happens, firsthand, when you don’t vocalize feedback soon enough…
You’re frustrated with the tone that a direct report used to respond to a customer email. But you think, “Meh, no need to bring it up now”… So you sit on it. The next day, you watch your direct report continue to respond inappropriately to customers. And then it happens again, and again, and again. Your frustration starts to fester, but you think “Ah, I just don’t think now is the right time to bring it up”… Until it gets to a point where you blurt out the feedback, visibly irritated at them. Then they ask you, “Why didn’t you tell me sooner?” 🙂
Does this sounds uncannily familiar?
Now, this does not mean you should shout whatever you feedback you have in front of the entire team during the all-staff meeting, chastising them in front of everyone. Nor does it mean you should interrupt your direct report at their desk when they’re heads down working on a big deadline for the next day.
Rather, it means you should seriously examine the cost of you not giving this feedback as soon as you can, no matter how small it is.
Small feedback snowballs. Don’t create an avalanche.
#3: If the feedback is big, set aside deliberate time to discuss it.
What if the feedback you need to deliver is a doozy? An employee really messed up a big project, or they seriously offended a leadership team member.
This kind of sensitive, meatier feedback is best delivered during a time when both you and the other person are in a reflective, empathetic state. That means not “in passing,” not hurried, and not as a “surprise” to the other person.
A regular one-on-one meeting is the perfect time to share this flavor of feedback, when you’ve explicitly set aside time to share feedback with one another.
Scholars have identified that the ideal time to share negative feedback is when the other person has “higher self-regulatory capacities” – that is, when they can override their own impulsive, undesired behavior and be more receptive to feedback. In their studies, they found that the more worn down, tired, and emotionally laden a person feels, the more likely they’ll process negative feedback defensively.
It makes sense: When we’re tired, frazzled, or stressed, our propensity to react poorly to bad news or something critical about ourselves is greater.
Other research has revealed that this self-regulatory capacity declines as the day continues on – and thus, someone scholars suggest that giving feedback earlier in the day may be more prudent than giving it later. (That suggestion may be a bit sweeping of a generalization, in my view.)
More precisely, setting aside the deliberate time to deliver this weightier feedback, and considering, “Am I in the right mental and emotional state to give this feedback – and is the other person, too?” will help increase the chances that when you deliver the feedback, it’ll land well.
#4: In all cases, clarify why you’re giving this feedback now.
Regardless of when you share feedback, it’s going to be received better if you share why you’re deciding to give this feedback in this moment.
Ultimately, you want a change in the other person’s behavior. As a result, be sure to share how the timing of your feedback was part of your desire to support them and encourage that change.
For example, if the feedback you’re delivering is about their interactions with coworkers, you could say: “I want you to look good in front the team – and so I wanted to give you this feedback so you’d have as much time as possible in advance of the next team meeting.“
Or, if the feedback has to do with their skills, you could say: “I’m giving you this feedback because I care about your career and want to give you the best shot at a promotion. That’s why I wanted to share this perspective of mine as soon as possible.“
You can also share why you chose not to give your feedback immediately. You could say: “It’s always important to me that we have these discussions between just you and I – no one else – and so I wanted to wait til we had ample time during our one-on-one meeting to discuss this.” Or, “You are doing crucial work, so I wanted to give you space to do that work before reflecting together on your performance this quarter.“
Timing of feedback matters. By choosing the right time – and asking what the other person prefers – you increase the likelihood that they’ll receive the feedback well, and do something different because of it.
Claire is the CEO of Know Your Team – software that helps you avoid becoming a bad boss. Her company was spun-out of Basecamp back in 2014. If you were interested, you can read more of Claire’s writing on leadership on the Know Your Team blog.