Giving constructive feedback is key to building a team. Here are 5 easy steps to get it right.

Many managers are uncomfortable giving feedback, especially when it’s negative. This discomfort often turns into anxiety and avoiding it altogether. As a result, a problem that’s fixable when addressed early can become a huge problem when the right feedback is never given.  With a little bit of training, you can fix this destructive behavior and build a better team. What training? We read Herman Aguinis’ book on Performance Management so you don’t have to, and will tell you everything you need to know in this article. 🙂

Effective feedback is super important because it helps employees understand their strengths, challenges, and resources. This improves performance and boosts motivation. A huge component of motivation is feeling acknowledged for doing things right. But to do things right, people need honest & critical feedback on which to leverage their efforts.

Feedback encourages goal-setting, and empowers employees to develop their knowledge, competence, and skills. 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.

However if feedback is not delivered the right way or doesn’t provide concrete  information, it can sometimes have a negative effect on performance & motivation. Such effects can include self-doubt or questions about identity.

So how do you do it the right way? 


The Basics

Before we get into the specifics of constructive criticism, 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 he should or should not repeat in the future.
  • Timeliness: Deliver the feedback as close to the performance incident 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 close to the behavior as possible. 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 other employees or the organization. Link the behavior to business results.
  • Emphasize The Positive: When giving positive feedback, show that you are pleased rather than rushing through giving the praise. Avoid saying things like “not bad” or “better than last time”. Instead, say “I like the way you did that”.


Negative Feedback:

Providing honest constructive comments in a way that is encouraging rather than demotivating is not always easy. Negative feedback is 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 is to talk about the behavior and the results specifically and not use them to draw 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 the negative feedback as much as possible.  So here’s how to avoid negative consequences even when you give negative 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 – which is a point we’ll get to later.


2. Explain Your Concern

  • Describe Before Evaluating: Start by focusing on the behaviours 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 behaviour 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 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 as a whole, rather focus on specific unsatisfactory work behaviours. Describe examples of behaviours, results, and the situation in which they occured. Rather than saying something like “You’ve been slow” or “You’ve been lazy”, be specific by explaining “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 he is not the only one vulnerable.  “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 where the root of the problem is.   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 will know what course of action to take. Remember that your goal is to help the employee boost her performance. Speaking of which:


3. Focus On Fixing

  • 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 to a learning one. “How can I help you?” For example, she may need you to provide her with resources such as training. Or you may need to make sure she receives the parts of the projects she needs on time, in order to be able to meet her own deadlines for deliverables.
  • Focus On Positive Change: Work jointly 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 she 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 trainthe employee further, 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 3 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 he will be able to improve his performance. When you show the employee you believe in him, it reinforces the idea that feedback is about a behavior  and not about him 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 helped. Be sure to recognize achievements with positive feedback and encouragement. This lets the employee see if he’s on the right track and establishes accountability.

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