What is constructive feedback? For a lot of people the word “feedback” carries a negative connotation. It smacks of performance reviews, being called to the boss’s office, ultimatums and being scolded. Of sitting at your desk for the rest of the day with teeth clenched, muttering angry under your breath.
The reason is that many of our experiences with feedback focus on the negative kind, when we have made a mistake or done something worthy of criticism. And very few people like to be told that they have done wrong.
Giving feedback can be tricky business, which is why a lot of people on both sides of the employment spectrum avoid it as much as possible. However, if done correctly, feedback can be very constructive and an important tool for professional growth. It can provide invaluable input for employees and make a real difference in their performance.
Therefore, as employers, as HR professionals or as a trainers in the field of vocational training, it is important to know how to provide feedback in a way that reinforces instead of diminishing, that teaches instead of criticizing.
Why is constructive feedback important?
It provides guidance
Just as companies rely on responses from their customers to improve their products, so rely employees on feedback to improve their performance. Without proper guidance by superiors or trainers, it is easy to feel like a rudderless ship. Not an ideal feeling to instill motivation and a sense of purpose.
It nurtures growth
People at all levels of an organization like to know how they’re doing and how their performance stacks up in the eyes of others. They want to get better at their job and grow. Letting them know what they are doing well and what could be improved is doing them a service and gives them a chance to do so.
It can improve employee engagement
If done in an honest, fair and constructive way, feedback talks doe not have to be anxiety-inducing to employees. On the contrary, it can actually help further engage workers. Very little is more motivating than feeling like your organization genuinely cares about you and your development. At the same time, nothing disengages workers faster than feeling like a faceless cog in a machine and feedback that consists of cookie-cutter phrases.
Common mistakes and misconceptions
As powerful as feedback can be in encouraging growth, if the job is botched, it can have as detrimental effects as it could otherwise be positive. Badly delivered feedback can result in lingering anger, demotivation, resentment, loss of respect, and a permanently damaged relationship. Common mistakes in giving feedback to others include:
1. Stalling to avoid hurting someone’s feeling
Being sensitive to the feelings of employees is a good thing and much better than being ignorant. Yet more often than not, trying to avoid an issue for fear of stepping on someone’s toes only exacerbates it by allowing it to fester and escalate to a point that calls for more drastic measures.
2. Concern that feedback might be taken the wrong way
When holding a mirror towards the action of others, we naturally want to avoid that recipients will take it as personal criticism. Therefore it’s important not to lose sight of the purpose: to offer help for improving the employee’s performance. It is helpful to state your intention up front and ask the person to reflect back what they heard in order to immediately correct any misunderstandings.
3. Failing to provide positive feedback
When giving feedback in the workplace, a slight negativity bias easily sneaks. What is working well is seen as normal and not necessarily emphasized, while mistakes give cause for pointing out. However, positive feedback is just as important to correctly understand one’s performance than negative.
4. Having no clear outcome
The key to constructive feedback is having a clear agenda with actionable outcomes. The goal is not to demotivate the other person or to cause them to leave entirely. Being specific and setting goals for what you want the employee to achieve is very helpful in this regard.
What is the basis for giving effective feedback?
To have any sort of effect on the recipient, the person providing feedback has to be credible in their eyes. You have to understand what employees do and take time to observe their work if you want them to listen to you. Someone who doesn’t know or appreciate their job will be hard pressed to receive a positive or meaningful response to their feedback.
No matter if positive or negative, feedback has to be honest. Most people are very good at detecting smokescreens and mirrors. Be respectful and considerate, but don’t sugarcoat or tiptoe around the issue at hand. Otherwise you are doing a disservice to both parties involved.
Trust between parties involved in feedback talks is key for giving believable advice. Someone who feels that the person providing feedback has their best interest at heart is much more likely to follow it. If there is no trust involved, advice easily falls on deaf ears.
How to give constructive feedback in 8 steps
In the spirit of actionable goals, here is a framework which can be used to make sure feedback to employees is delivered in a constructive way:
1. Invite them in
Instead of ordering someone to your office, propose a dialogue and hearing their side of the story. This can take the form of “Would you be willing to talk to me about XYZ? We can do it right now or after lunch if that works better for you.”. It takes away a possible sense of confrontation, keeps the other person from feeling overly defensive.
2. Set the scene
Feedback should always be given in a, appropriate environment that offers complete privacy if needed. It enables a more open conversation and allows the employee to voice their own concerns and opinions.
3. Provide context
No matter what a feedback talk is in regard of, it is important to be as specific as possible. Describe relevant behaviors, actions, or situations in detail.
4. Stick to the facts
Talk about what you have witnessed but avoid drawing conclusions. For example, mention that an important project wasn’t done on time but don’t assume that is was because of a lack of interest on the other part. Remain objective.
5. Explain the impact
Explain the impact, positive and negative, their behavior or performance had on others, their teams or the company as a whole. Again, stick to the facts.
6. Ask for their response
Give the other person an opportunity to respond to the issue. Avoid arguing about rights or wrongs or getting personal. Let them tell their part of the story and give their own perspective.
7. Discuss next steps
Describe how a situation, behavior or performance could be improved in the future. Discuss clear next steps. Be concrete. Explain the importance of change and positive results it will bring about.
8. End on a positive note
If possible, mention something positive that you have observed to end the talk in an air of encouragement. This will also help balance out any negative feedback.
Providing feedback in a constructive manner is not rocket science. If done well, it is a great way to support employees in their development and nurture positive relationships as well as reduce adverse feelings toward the topic of feedback talks on both sides.
Images: Miguel Virkkunen Carvalho, Lovelorn Poets