Many managers are uncomfortable giving feedback — especially when it’s negative. This discomfort can cause undue stress and anxiety, and lead some managers to avoid giving the feedback altogether. As a result, a problem that is fixable if addressed early on can progressively become a much bigger issue. Overcoming the discomfort of providing honest, constructive feedback is the only way to build a strong team.
How can you do it? We’ve gathered lessons from Herman Aguinis’ book on Performance Management which should help set you on the right track.
The value of constructive feedback
Constructive feedback is important because it helps employees understand their strengths, areas that need improvement, and the resources at their disposal — all of which affect performance and motivation. When a manager acknowledges the things you do right, that can have a huge impact on your motivation at work. But to do things right, people need honest and critical feedback to help them direct their efforts.
Feedback encourages goal-setting, and empowers employees to develop their knowledge, competence, and skills. In doing so, it gives employees confidence and spurs a sense of responsibility for managing their own performance. Such discussions also boosts engagement by helping employees understand their role in the team and organization as a whole.
But if it’s not constructive feedback — or it’s delivered in the wrong way — it can sometimes have an adverse effect on performance and motivation. This might be reflected in self-doubt or questions about work identity.
So how do you provide constructive feedback the right way?
The basics of constructive feedback
Before we get into the specifics of constructive feedback, let’s go over a few points that should apply to any feedback — positive or negative.
- Specificity: Feedback should be about specific behaviours or results, and given in a specific context. This allows the employee to understand what they should or should not repeat in the future.
- Timeliness: Deliver the feedback as close to the actual “occurrence” as possible. Giving it immediately after yields the best results.
- Consistency: Feedback should be ongoing. Do not save it all for a quarterly or annual performance review; deliver it as behaviors occur. Feedback should also not be an overwhelming amount of praise or criticism. Rather, make it a balance of both.
- Consequences: Make feedback contextual. Explain the positive or negative results the behavior had on the organization. Link the behavior to business results.
- Emphasize the positive: When giving positive feedback, take time to show why you’re pleased rather than rushing through praise. Avoid saying things like “not bad” or “better than last time.” Instead, say “I like the way you did that.”
Keeping negative feedback constructive
Providing honest, constructive feedback in a way that is encouraging rather than demotivating is not always easy. This is especially true when the feedback is negative. Still, it’s invaluable and should never be avoided, but if it’s done harshly it can spur defensiveness and disengagement. This shifts one’s attention from personal growth to resentment.
The trick to negative constructive feedback is talking about the behavior and the results specifically and not using it to draw a conclusion about a person in general. Most of us don’t like to make people feel bad, so it’s important to take the feelings out of negative feedback as much as possible. Here’s how to give negative, but constructive feedback:
1. Start on the right foot:
- Privacy: Be sure to pick a private setting and talk at a place and time that prevents any potential embarrassment.
- Start positive: Lead the conversation with something the employee is doing well. This will boost their confidence, make them comfortable, and minimize stress and frustration as the conversation proceeds.
- Intention to help: Make it clear you want to help the employee continue performing and developing their skills through feedback. Employees respond best to negative feedback when they feel that the manager is genuinely trying to improve their performance. Feedback that it is supported with some kind of evidence is also key.
2. Explain your concern
- Describe Before Evaluating: Constructive feedback starts by focusing on the behaviors and results instead of immediately evaluating and judging them. It’s better to start with reporting what you observed as objectively as possible. This avoids defensiveness and rejection of feedback. Once you and the employee agree that they did in fact do the behavior in question, then you can proceed to evaluating it. For example, you could say: “So this quarter you didn’t manage to generate as much revenue as your goal. Let’s focus on finding some ideas on what we can do to help you meet your objectives and get your bonus next quarter”
- Be specific: Don’t focus on the employee or their performance as a whole, but focus on specific unsatisfactory work behaviours. Describe examples of behaviours and results, and the situation in which they occurred. Rather than saying something like “You’ve been slow” or “You’ve been lazy,” get into the specifics and explain “You haven’t met your memo deadlines for the months of September and October.”
- Verifiability: Anything you say about the employee should be verifiable and accurate, not based on rumours or assumptions.
- Consequences of behaviours: Explaining the impact the behaviour has on you, coworkers, and the organization, helps the employee understand they aren’t the only person affected. “Because we’re still struggling to grow our sales in your market, we’re having a hard time hitting overall revenue goals for the unit, which puts the whole team in a bad spot.”
- Diagnose performance problems: Giving feedback should be a conversation, not a monologue. Give the employee a chance to respond to your comments and try to see the situation from their perspective. Agree on the details and the causes. “You didn’t place nearly enough outgoing calls in September; the goal was 400 and the call sheets show only 88. What happened here?” By listening to the employee you can determine the root of the problem. Is it a result of a lack of knowledge, skills, abilities, motivation, or factors that are beyond the employee’s control? Once you know that, you’ll know what course of action to take. Remember that your goal is to help the employee boost their performance. Speaking of which…
3. Focus on fixing issues
- Ask how you can help: You’ve explained the problem. You’ve made sure the person understands your feedback. Now is your chance to ask a powerful question to turn this from a demotivating situation into a learning one. “How can I help you?” The employee may need you to provide them with resources such as training. Or you may need to make sure they receive assets on time in order to be able to meet their own deadlines for deliverables. However you can help, help.
- Focus on positive change: Work together to build developmental objectives. Discuss what future performance is appropriate, and agree on a mutually-acceptable action plan. Give suggestions on how to improve the performance in question. Encourage the employee to share ideas on how they can perform better in the future. If there are specific things the employee needs to start or stop doing, be sure these are clearly identified. If there is something you need to do, like provide further training, agree on that as well. For example, “I know how hard it is to balance the objectives we have in our department. Can you think of anything we can work on together to help you meet your last three objectives? Do you need any training or resources? What can I do to help you?”
- Demonstrate confidence: Make sure to let the receiver know you believe they will be able to improve their performance. When you show the employee you believe in them, it reinforces the idea that feedback is about a behavior and not about them as a person.
4. Follow up
Once you’ve created clear goals and objectives together, step back and let the employee implement those changes. Many managers are wary about following up for fear of micromanaging. The best thing to do is set a clear date and time to review improvements and see if the changes have helped. Be sure to recognize achievements with positive feedback and encouragement. This lets the employee see if they’re on the right track and establishes accountability.
Build better teams with constructive feedback
Your team should have the confidence and ability to grow into their roles. As a manager, you’re responsible for guiding that growth. Your feedback, and the way you give it, can have an intense impact on a person’s growth. So make sure you always give constructive feedback, and you’ll reap the rewards in a great team.
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