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Performance Management: Formal and Informal Feedback in the Workplace

By Roger Duffield

There is overwhelming scholarly research that feedback can improve performance, however how this looks in the workplace can vary greatly. What form is the feedback taking, for example? An example of formal feedback would be performance reviews and growth plans while informal feedback could be as simple as a passing suggestion or a more in-depth sit-down conversation. Growth can occur from either type of feedback, however understanding when to use which type is essential.

Formal feedback is a necessity in the job place to adhere to any company policies, but also to document formal progress. While growth can occur because of this type of feedback, it is less likely. Feedback and assessments given for these formal reasons tend to be for accountability and offer less improvement overall than informal methods. This is still a useful tool and should not be discarded.

Informal feedback is the main type seen during the workday – encompassing walk-bys, informal conversations, and even more formal sit downs that are not tied to any assessment tools or framework of accountability. The key to informal feedback’s effectiveness is threefold: The employee is not under stress or fear of repercussions, the tone of the conversation is on growth, the conversation is detail oriented.


Repercussions of Formal Feedback

Conversations where an employee is worried about their job security will not lead to better performance. The tone of these types of conversations is more likely to put an employee under stress which makes them less likely to absorb any information given as well as they could normally. Additionally, employees under this type of stress are more likely to be reactionary and defensive – not conducive traits for a productive conversation.


The crux of a growth conversation is that the focus is on actionable items for the employee. What concrete steps can they take to improve performance. This conversation shouldn’t be one-sided as research shows us that having employees self-assess their performance will not only raise their awareness of their own growth areas, but also increase their motivation to overcome these weaknesses. The growth conversation should always be geared towards not only actionable goals, but attainable ones.


Conversations about growth can easily tend towards generalized issues which can be hard for employees to understand how to address. Focus on specific details that can be acted upon instead of generalized feedback and comments. Additionally, generalized comments can be interpreted by employees as personal failings instead of simply areas of growth. We want employees to know that they should improve at a specific task or detail, not that they are lacking a trait to be successful which will negatively impact their improvement as they take it personally.

Overall, feedback can be a powerful tool in the workplace to improve performance, increase productivity, and drive improvements. Think of each type of feedback as a different tool in your toolbox. Does the situation call for a wrench or a screwdriver? Consider what your goal is – for accountability and documentation for procedures use formal feedback. For employee growth, use informal feedback that follows the three rules of no fear of repercussions, focus on growth, and detail-oriented conversations.

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