Learning the Art of Giving Constructive Feedback
Workplace and workforce management are without a doubt some of the most challenging aspects of running a business, and a major factor is engaging employees through constructive feedback.
Highly Engaged employees are 3.3x more likely to feel like they receive adequate feedback for their role and contributions than Actively Disengaged employees.
–Bonusly's 2019 Engagement and Modern Workplace Report
Unfortunately, many growing businesses fail to establish and scale company-wide practices in time, especially when it comes to feedback. When you have a team of three, it’s easy to manage and share feedback candidly. However, as that team grows, it becomes increasingly difficult to keep track of happenings and communicate feedback effectively.
Similarly, the act of recognizing someone’s hard work and dedication can disappear from a manager’s to do list if it’s not engrained in a team’s culture. Keeping in mind just how important employee recognition is, top organizations would be wise to learn the art of constructive feedback, a skill that provides a significant boost business and company culture.
Why feedback matters
Not only does providing constructive feedback improve the way employees feel about their work and help develop them professionally, it has some other amazing benefits as well:
- It boosts employee engagement by 60%
- It improves employee morale, which leads to improved productivity and satisfaction
- It has a positive effect on happiness, which in turn increases business productivity by 31%
But there is more to constructive feedback than just saying “well done” and “good job”. What do we do when an employee does not do a good job or simply has a lot of room for improvement?
If you want your words have the most positive impact possible, you’ll need to learn how to frame, when to deliver, and what purpose to assign to your constructive feedback.
Why constructive criticism is better than just criticism
Telling someone, "You're rude to junior employees," isn't likely to prompt a positive reaction. Either someone will be immediately defensive, or go so far in the opposite direction that they'd be ruinously empathetic to junior employees instead!
It'd be much more constructive to say something like, "I noticed that you're sometimes short with our junior employees, which can come off as uncollaborative. Remember that they're still learning, so it may be more productive to be gentle with them."
Unlike plain old criticism, constructive criticism provides room for growth. It’s not hurtful, can prompt positive action, and focuses on the specific situation at hand (as opposed to someone’s personality or any other personal trait).
Unfortunately, many attempts at productive criticism are perceived as negative and hurtful, and as nothing more than an attack. Remember:
Feedback is measured not at your mouth but at the other person's ear.
Right about now, you might be thinking that the term “constructive criticism” sounds a bit like an oxymoron. That’s why I prefer term “constructive feedback” as a way to eliminate any negative connotations a reader or listener may have with the word “criticism."
However, whether we call it constructive feedback or constructive criticism, the principle is the same: it allows you, the giver, as well as the recipient to focus on the positive rather than the negative, fostering room for growth, without harming the relationship and causing any tension.
Elements of constructive feedback
Let’s explore how constructive feedback is framed, and how you can use it to your advantage:
1. Have a specific goal in mind
The first element of constructive feedback is its goal: rather than assigning blame for a negative outcome, you should search for reasons why that outcome happened in the first place and look how to prevent it in the future. In simpler terms, the main purpose of constructive feedback is to deal with the “why” of a particular problem, not the “who."
Do you find yourself bringing others down? Re-examine the content, tone, and timing of your feedback. Is it achieving the goal you have in mind?
When something bad happens at work— you fail to reach a milestone, a task is late, a mistake is made—it’s natural to want to vent, play the blame game, and simply be negative. Ask yourself if what you want to say will be productive and if you’d want someone to say the same thing to you in that situation. Only if your answer is yes should you pursue it further.
2. Be truthful and honest
Honesty is the best policy. You hear it often, and when it comes to feedback, it rings true.
The aim of feedback is to be real—it should not be based on exaggerations (be they positive or negative).
Whatever it is you want to say, make sure you truly mean it. And before you say it, think long and hard about whether you actually truly mean it. In the heat of the moment, for whatever reason, your emotions can take over your rationale, and you can say things you don’t really mean.
However, it’s also not enough to be direct with feedback. You’ll need to have built rapport with the person you’re giving feedback to. Caring about them personally is necessary for challenging them directly.
3. Offer a solution or alternative
When saying something “negative,” make sure you are not merely pointing out the fact that there is a problem, but also provide a solution or alternative.
Let’s say someone was tasked with creating a strategy for the HR department for a new year, but that strategy isn’t in line with the company’s values.
Instead of telling them to simply redo it, take the time to explain what the company’s values are and what kind of a workplace you are trying to establish. Share the team’s goals for the new year and how you expect the HR strategy to mimic them.
When offering a solution, base it on evidence, rather than the “because I said so,” argument. Reach for internal data, external research, or empirical evidence that supports your advice, and frame it as a chance for improvement, rather than as a warning.
4. Avoid getting personal
Focus on the situation or action instead of being personal. Remember, your team member’s actions might have been forgetful, but simply attributing it to their forgetful personality doesn't actually help anyone.
Instead, focus on helping them achieve their best—planning may not have been thorough, key steps were missed, and so on.
Of course, there may be situations when you can provide examples from your own experiences around how you were able to change. For example, you might have worked to overcome tendencies to be stubborn by reflecting after challenging meetings, or you may have had trouble saying no to new tasks and created an organized to-do list.
5. Counter potential bias by offering perspective
Whenever you offer feedback, ensure you are familiar with the entire picture. We base our judgment on the knowledge and experience we have, but there simply may be something you are not aware of.
Whatever it is you are saying, always ask for the other person’s version of events, and ask them to tell you if you are not aware of a certain circumstance. For example, you may not aware that a member of your team was stuck in a department meeting two hours longer than expected, or that their computer crashed and it took an entire day to fix it.
6. Be aware of emotions
When delivering feedback, ensure the other party is not going through their own heightened emotions, especially if they are negative.
If someone has made a mistake, and they are aware of it and angry at themselves about it, the last thing they need to hear is your feedback. Let them cool off, and leave the feedback for another day, as sleeping on it will provide a clearer picture for all parties involved.
7. Adjust feedback to the recipient
Finally, when offering feedback, try to tailor it to the person you are speaking to, as the same feedback will be perceived differently by different kinds of workers and communicators.
Some people will understand and accept the message instantly, while others will have a natural bias towards feedback no matter where it comes from, and you need to find the best way to communicate with both groups.
This means you will need to get to know your employees well enough before you can start implementing the method— however, this time investment usually pays off in the long run.
The art of providing constructive feedback may not be easy to master. After all, there is a lot of restraint, forethought, and empathy involved.
That being said, it is a skill worth mastering no matter what position you hold in the workspace. As you’ve, feedback and recognition are highly useful ways to make any workplace more efficient, pleasant, and engaging.
For more tips on making your workplace the best it can be, check out this resource: