Getting good feedback is necessary for anyone to grow their career. But too many of us end up receiving unhelpful advice that doesn’t mean anything useful.
Phoebe Gavin, a career coach who specialises in supporting early and mid-career professionals, said she often sees bad feedback fall into two categories: empty praise and vague criticism.
These types of feedback are unhelpful, she said, because what people really want is “to be able identify something specific that they can do that they should either keep doing because it’s working, or something they should adjust because it’s not working.”
Unfortunately, bad feedback is common, and it can even start to infect your own language at work. Here are types of feedback you should rethink.
1. “Great job.”
Popular but vague words of encouragement like this are not actually helpful, because they aren’t tied to a specific outcome related to the role or the organisation. The person hearing it doesn’t “know why they did a great job, what exactly they did a great job at. They don’t know how their great job has an impact. It’s just not very useful,” Gavin said.
It doesn’t encourage anyone to keep up the good work, either.
“The problem with this type of feedback ― although it feels great to receive it ― is that it is not reinforcing any behaviours. In order to turn meaningless feedback into something that will encourage employees to continue to perform, the feedback must be very specific,” said Angela Karachristos, a career coach who has worked in human resources.
“Instead of saying, ‘good job,’ the manager should say give a specific example of what the person did well so that those positive behaviours can be repeated,” she said.
Often, giving too much unhelpful praise is a people-pleasing mistake that first-time managers make as a way to make up for negative experiences they personally had on a team. “A lot of managers over-correct and really lay on the praise, and not give the kind of support through constructive criticism that actually helps people grow,” Gavin said.
2. “I don’t like that.”
Bad criticism stops with what someone did wrong, while good criticism gives them a clear path of what needs to happen differently and how they can do it better next time.
“If you just tell someone, ‘Hey, you missed that deadline, that caused problems,’ sure, that might be valid, but it doesn’t give space to improve with whatever context that person is working in,” Gavin said. “It doesn’t create a conversation where the problem can be solved.”
Gavin said subjective, vague feedback such as, “I don’t like that,” “That doesn’t work for me,” or “I’ve never heard that before” stems from someone reaching into “their own subjective experience and not bringing any other external factors in.”
A better method is to be specific about what’s going wrong, or to have the humility to note that the feedback is just an opinion. It’s the difference between “‘Those colours seem very jarring to me, that’s just how they look to my eye,’ versus ‘I don’t like that, I don’t like that design,’” Gavin said.
3. “You need to work on your attitude.”
In her book Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity, management expert Kim Scott writes that a lot of bad work criticism falls into the trap of highlighting personal traits rather than having external causes of a problem acknowledged.
“It’s easier to say, ‘You’re sloppy’ than to say ‘You’ve been working nights and weekends, and it’s starting to take a toll on your ability to catch mistakes in your logic.’ But it’s also far less helpful,” Scott writes, noting that better criticism makes it clear that a work problem is not “due to some unfixable personality flaw,” and can be used as a tool for improvement.
Karachristos said that a common example of this kind of personal criticism is “You need to work on your attitude.” “Any type of feedback that is focused on the person or that person’s personality, and not the work, can be very problematic,” she said.
At worst, when job performance feedback is tied to a person’s identity, it can be used to hold their career back. Women of colour, in particular, are given subjective labels like “difficult,” “angry” or “challenging” in performance reviews – words that signal they are not a “fit” in a workplace or don’t “fit” a manager’s homogenous idea of success.
Nadia De Ala, founder of Real You Leadership, a group coaching program for women of color, said her clients deal with feedback – often unsolicited – about their natural tone of voice and how they dress, rather than about actual points of improvement on their work.
One client asked a co-worker for help with compiling marketing research for a promotion and was told, “You’re not going to get promoted if your voice goes up at the end of sentences. You don’t sound confident.”
“This type of feedback was unhelpful because it was unsolicited advice and had nothing to do with market research,” De Ala said.
It speaks to how feedback is not just words: It can make or break an employee’s experience and even push them to leave. Gallup research found that when a boss’ feedback makes employees feel demotivated, disappointed or depressed, four out of five of those employees start to job-hunt.
Sometimes, the feedback can be right, but still be wrong because of how the message is delivered.
If you’re in a position to give feedback, recognise that not everyone likes to hear it the same way.
“You have to be sensitive to where you do it. You might feel like it’s great to publicly recognise the person, but some people hate that. It makes them feel embarrassed,” Karachristos said.
Karachristos said it’s also a mistake for peers and managers to publicly criticise a group when they really intend that message for one person.
“That person will never get the message, and then my whole team is going to get annoyed that I’m down on the whole group, or not necessarily respect me as a team leader or colleague because I’m not brave enough to address the problem,” Karachristos said.