Employee Feedback: It’s More Than Words – Part 1 Consider the Context by Mary Schaefer

“Is there a way to say it that isn’t so condescending?”

I got this question while conducting training on providing employee feedback.

The question was in response to me sharing one way to open a conversation. Perplexing. After listening I realized I overlooked a key part of offering feedback effectively – context.

For me, context includes:

  • Relationship.
  • Their current state.
  • How you both view feedback.

It’s more than words.

We can practice opening the conversation, and how to respond to an array of responses, but unless we are clear on the context and our intent, we may not be effective.


We have to consider our relationship with the other person. I don’t mean just the reporting relationship (e.g., supervisor/report), but the quality of our relationship, and the state of our relationship

  • Do they respect you?
  • Do they trust you?
  • Have you demonstrated commitment to their potential, development, and success?
  • How often do you interact in a meaningful way?
  • What has been the nature of your interactions, period? Though specific feedback may not always be positive, is the broad brush take-away positive? I like to say, “Leave them with hope and action.
  • Do they know/believe you care about them?

As I write this I realize some of these questions go both ways.

Do you respect them? Do you trust them? Do they demonstrate commitment to their own potential, development, and the organization’s success?

Their current state.

Consider what is what is going on for them right now as it relates to work performance, e.g., wins, level of performance, how they are viewing the meaning of their work, and the potential impact of their contribution.

  • How are they doing right now?
  • Will your feedback come as a surprise?
  • Are they used to getting feedback?
  • How often do they get feedback?
  • How have they responded in the past?

How you both view feedback.

Is feedback an event, a transaction, “something to get over with,” or understood to be part of an ongoing discussion, i.e., an investment?

The attitude you bring to the conversation makes all the difference. Feedback doesn’t have to be some big formal thing. Regular meetings that allow you and your employees to get to know each other help. Feedback can be incorporated easily.

Sometimes people react badly to feedback because they don’t know what it means for them. They just want you to go away.

When you hang in there, knowing you are with them for the long haul, you are grounded when they react. Over time, because people know you are in their corner, they can come to welcome your investment in their development. And that is more than just words.

A version of this post originally ran on the BizCatalyst 360° blog December 3, 2019.


Mary Schaefer is a coach, trainer, consultant, and speaker whose work is focused on making the most of what human resources can contribute to an organization through their energy and creativity, while at the same time meeting their own specific needs for meaningful work. Mary’s mission is to create work cultures where organizations and human beings can both thrive.

Click here to see Mary’s talk at TEDx Wilmington (DE, USA) titled, “Putting the Human Back Into Human Resources.”

Mary is a former HR manager, holds a Master’s degree in HR and is a certified HR professional.

Mary Schaefer