Staff feedback: How to give hard messages

Written by: John Dabell | Published:
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Feedback – this time it’s professional. High-quality appraisal and feedback is essential to teachers’ professional development and progress. But the personal element can make these interactions difficult. John Dabell gives some advice

Thoughtful, suitably timed feedback intended to help staff improve is critical because we cannot rely on self-assessment.

Professional growth comes through personal feedback and it is quite a cocktail of emotion because it inevitably mixes negative and constructive messages.

When there are plenty of positives to talk about then it is a pleasure and enjoyable part of being a manager or appraiser. But giving feedback to staff that are underperforming and delivering “hard messages” is challenging to say the least and not for the faint-hearted. “Tough love” is seldom pretty, as people can get super-defensive, if not to your face, then in the days and weeks afterwards.

Feedback is crucial to staff because it helps them get better at what they do. Teachers crave feedback because they ultimately want to improve and grow. Staff would like more feedback but many staff are left high and dry because managers don’t give enough feedback.

An annual appraisal can always be woefully inadequate as a way of supporting and developing staff, because a year is a long time. Sometimes it is necessary to intervene much sooner and take early action to ensure that teachers have the skills and support they need to carry out their role effectively. This might be a capability procedure but not always.

Sometimes mini-appraisals punctuated over the year are more effective. Either way, when there is a difficult message, they are hard to give especially when they relate to a teacher making a significant error, doing something unprofessional or losing motivation for the job.

Getting the feedback right is essential to the wellbeing of the individual and the school – it is a huge responsibility, complex and delicate.
When done well, feedback can modify behaviour, but if not managed carefully then it can result in demotivation and deterioration in performance.

Obviously schools will need to refer to their own appraising teacher performance policy as part of any formal feedback process, but there are some tips we can be mindful of that will also help.

Do your homework

The stress involved in giving a difficult message is not to be underestimated but this can be alleviated by being prepared, identifying the problem, getting your facts straight and focusing on the evidence (and not opinion).

Ensure that you keep notes and rehearse what to say and how to say it – structure your conversation and have a clear idea of the message you want to give and what you want to happen. Have examples to share to illustrate your main point and outline specific actions that need to be taken.

Be empathetic

Acknowledge their feelings by putting yourself in the shoes of the person you are giving feedback to and consider how the news will be received. If you can place yourself into this vulnerable position then you are half-way to appreciating what they might be feeling like and your “humanity” will be obvious.

Be concerned, genuine and compassionate and focus on the dignity of the receiver.

Important: know your staff

Manage the whole person. If you know your staff and what makes them tick then this will help you immeasurably.

Knowing a little about their personal and private lives will help to contextualise any issues and also when the time is right to meet. You don’t want to be saying your piece around the time a member of staff has just lost a loved one.

Choosing your moment is important but giving a hard message promptly is the ideal because things are “fresh”. Sooner rather than later is the aim so that action can be taken to improve a situation.

Protect the conversation

Select the right place to have your conversation by ensuring that it is private and without distraction. If you want to encourage dialogue so you can get an insight into how someone is feeling then they must feel safe and secure in their environment. This also ensures that they receive the information fairly and they have a better opportunity of understanding what you are saying.


Feedback is a gift. Remind staff that any feedback given is coming from a good place and that you have their best interests at heart – if you say it and don’t mean it then this will be obvious. As cheesy and corny as it sounds, saying, “we want to help you be the best version of you”, focuses on betterment. Using the inclusive “we” focuses on the benefits to the school community and reminds the person that they belong.

If there is a healthy relationship there in the first place based on mutual respect, transparency and trust then good intentions will shine through the clouds.

Focus on behaviour

We do it with children and we need to do it with staff – focus on the behaviour and not the person. If you make feedback feel even remotely personal then it is an uphill struggle all the way. A behaviour-oriented tack lessens the negative impact of any difficult message and gives it a professional edge. Offering a solution or way forward communicates that you are there to help not criticise.

Mind your language

Be calm and constructive. There are particular words it is best to steer clear of when giving feedback. For example, generalisations such as “always” and “never” don’t help because they can incite defensiveness – no-one is always or never anything in their work.

Avoid using “should” because this emphasises the idea that someone isn’t doing something and comes across a very negative.

Think carefully about joining two separate statements together using the word “but”. If you mix positive and negative in one statement then the negative will outweigh the positive. Make separate statements instead. Ask questions that drive self-evaluation.

Cut the crap

Don’t step on eggshells or stockpile negative feedback. Get to the point and do it without going round the houses and spending 20 minutes on a compliment sandwich – be quick, honest, specific and concise. If you delay getting to the meat of the issue then boundaries can get blurred, you can lose your nerve and the message is watered down or lost. Spell it out explicitly and objectively. Skirting around to “soften the blow” won’t help anyone.

Let them speak

Once you have said what you need to say, let your member of staff speak and actively listen to what they have to say. Keep quiet and make notes so that you have a record of responses, concerns and issues raised.

People need to say their piece and explain themselves and the opportunity to do so shouldn’t be hurried. The receiver may need time to regroup and needs time to think, so give them this time to reflect.

No quick fix

Don’t expect results overnight. Give people time to change and be aware that people are a work in progress. Set goals and targets but remember that this is a process of on-going tweaking, adjusting and reviewing and that improvement needs to be fed and nurtured. Where possible, let any solutions come from the member of staff concerned – they will often know what their weaknesses are. Communicate your desired outcome, define and agree on a mutually acceptable action plan and formalise what future performance is appropriate.

Be available

After a conversation, ensure that the member of staff concerned can come back to you and that you are available to support and provide ideas and further resources if required. The primary goal of this process is to maintain and enhance the working relationship and improve things, so support them in their daily practice.


It is your job to help fellow staff to be the best they can and any plan of action has to be revisited so schedule a timeframe for review. This provides a clear date for improvement and helps to focus minds on getting better. Setting a specific date and time to review establishes accountability and improves the likelihood of performance improvement.

Message in a bottle

When a difficult message has to be given, many managers and leaders stumble because it takes them well beyond their comfort zone and stretches their communication skills. But with insight and training, difficult situations can be opportunities for developing greater awareness, learning, motivation, support, creativity and action.

The above tips are snippets of advice that you might find useful, but every situation is different and so you will need to consider each situation uniquely. Some people may require greater compassion and need less help, whereas others might be more hard-headed and business-like in their response and want you to be blunt.

Difficult messages don’t have to mark the end of professional relationships but when done with good grace, careful planning, credibility and completeness, they can lead to a more dynamic colleague who feels sustained, valued and enabled. Feedback is always valuable. It can endorse what you already know, kindle powerful change or make you aware of lop-sided perceptions

Another thing to bear in mind is getting feedback on your performance as the appraiser. Continuous performance enrichment and delivering tough messages means we have to receive critical insights too for our own growth.

Ask the appraised whether you have treated them fairly and objectively and whether they have any comments to make. Have a thick skin.

  • John Dabell is a teacher, teacher trainer and writer. He has been teaching for 20 years and is the author of 10 books. He also trained as an Ofsted inspector. Visit and read his previous best practice articles for SecEd via


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