9 min read
Constructive feedback can be hard to hear, but it's a growth opportunity that's worth embracing. Here’s a complete guide on how you can use it to achieve positive outcomes.
We hear a lot about the importance of giving and receiving constructive feedback in the workplace—for good reason.
For leaders who want to improve their team’s productivity, it’s one of the most important aspects of their job. For employees looking to learn and grow their personal and professional skills, it’s essential to help them see where they’re at.
But giving and receiving feedback or criticism, even if it’s well-intentioned and constructive, can be a bit of a struggle for a lot of people. While most of us would say we prefer positively framed, helpful feedback, others who are more established experts in their field may prefer negative or corrective feedback.
If you’re on the receiving end of feedback, you might feel vulnerable: “Here’s my manager pointing out what I’m doing wrong and telling me what I need to do to get better at my job.” It’s hard not to perceive negative or corrective feedback as a personal attack on your character, work ethic, intellect, or expertise. Being taken down a peg is hard to deal with for anyone.
Conversely, if you’re a leader and feel like you have to have “one of those talks”, it’s never a good feeling. Telling your direct report something they probably don’t want to hear is difficult. But constructive feedback is one of the most impactful ways people can learn to get better.
Constructive feedback is guidance intended to improve, elevate, correct, or otherwise help an employee recognize their weaknesses for the purpose of growing in their role. It could be delivered top-down, bottom-up, or peer-to-peer and is meant to help the recipient achieve positive outcomes and address areas of improvement.
When done right, constructive feedback can improve employee morale, keep employees engaged, and improve relationships amongst collaborators.
We need to untangle some key differences between criticism and constructive feedback. Although both forms are meant to challenge your ideas or ability, one is more hurtful than the other. On the other hand, criticism is judgmental, negatively evaluative, and often accusatory. It’s more of a destructive way to take someone down for their perceived faults than it is to repair them.
As you can imagine (or have experienced firsthand), criticism in the workplace doesn’t really go over too well. The things we might criticize people for in the workplace, although specific, are often not actionable. They’re either too vague or too large to deal with in a day-to-day professional environment.
And that’s the crucial difference between the two forms. Good constructive feedback uses specific, concrete examples and offers a remedy to the perceived problem. For the recipient, it’s beneficial rather than derogatory.
When preparing your constructive feedback session, choose your words carefully. You don’t want to erode someone’s dignity and make them defensive by coming off with strong accusations. A great way to do this is to avoid “you” messages and replace them with “I” statements to mark your personal observations. Here are some constructive feedback examples for you to address common focus:
Criticism: You were late to this meeting three times in a row this month.
Example of constructive feedback: I noticed that you’ve been showing up late to meetings these days. I know there’s a heavier workload this quarter, but you need to be in the loop with projects. Is there anything I can support you with time management?
Criticism: You’re being very negative lately, and it’s demoralizing to the team.
Example of constructive feedback: I’m glad we’re taking the time to check in as I miss your usually positive, cheery self! How are you feeling, and is there something I can do to help?
Criticism: Mistakes happen, but you missed this, and it’s unacceptable.
Example of constructive feedback: We’d want to avoid some blindspots for our upcoming projects. I’m happy to assemble a brief and a detailed checklist of all your deliverables to ensure we don’t miss anything. Hopefully, this works, and we can revisit this process in a month.
Let’s take a look at some of how we can improve how we give and receive constructive feedback.
As you prepare to deliver your constructive feedback, you’re going to need to evaluate whether or not it’s really necessary. What might seem like a glaring performance issue one day may be corrected on its own the next. For example, if one of your employees was late a few days in a row, and they’ve apologized or provided a reason, don’t automatically assume that this is now a recurring issue that requires a stern talking-to and swift action on your part.
Take a step back and determine if the issue, weakness, or outcome is worth a feedback session. If it’s not, you might run the risk of unnecessarily stressing out the recipient.
Another way to approach this is to identify what you want the conversation to achieve. Do you expect they’ll change their behavior afterward? Will this be a productive conversation or not? These are questions to ask yourself before you jump into things.
For feedback to be constructive, you’re going to need to cite concrete examples and deliver your feedback as carefully and tactfully as you can. Doing your homework means knowing the ins and outs of the situation before you have that difficult conversation.
Since constructive feedback probably shouldn’t be delivered off the cuff, this means you’ll need to prepare beforehand. Gather facts and use examples (both positive and negative as applies), statistics, and other verifiable evidence to substantiate your claims about the person’s specific behavior.
Figure out if you play a role in this problem. Are you trying your hardest to objectively evaluate the person you’ll be delivering feedback to? This means eliminating any chance of speaking from your personal feelings and being impartial to the impact of the task and work itself.
Your feedback should be honest and genuine, and so should your offer to help. Are there opportunities for you to better support and enable them so they can better succeed? If so, evaluate the matter as a team, rather than pointing fingers at one single collaborator.
Can you guide this person towards an answer to the problem, and if so, is it a productive answer? If the person acts on the suggestion, will they (and your working relationship) be better off for it?
Make an effort to be there for the person, should they need you, as they work to overcome weaknesses and grow in their role.
When we’ve noticed something concerning, our gut reaction is often to criticize without even considering existing problem-solving efforts. It’s essential to offer feedback when we can, sharing actionable advice to help the person arrive at work with better solutions. Otherwise, it just turns into destructive feedback.
When you give constructive feedback, you want to show the person that you’re there to help, not bring them down. As you give your feedback, make sure you frame the nature of the problem purely in professional terms, citing real examples.
This means avoiding mention of personality or character traits and instead clearly explaining that this is a solvable work-related issue that you want to help them overcome. You don’t want your goodwill to come across as a personal attack or biased opinion.
When it comes to feedback or action items related to a specific project, don't wait days or weeks to give someone feedback on their work. A constructive conversation will only be relevant if the matter at hand is fresh in both your minds. Speak about the challenges, processes, and ideas to take note of in future projects while the reference is still top of mind.
You also want to avoid delivering public comments in group settings such as team meetings. This might lead employees to feel humiliated if they’re given negative feedback in front of other team members. As the golden rule says, praise in public but criticize in private.
It’s important to be transparent with your intentions to support. Receiving constructive feedback, especially multiple layers of talking points, could be mentally draining. When an employee misinterprets feedback, the feeling of being misunderstood can lead to them shutting down or resenting the presenter.
A balanced perspective provides a few positive pieces of feedback to let people know what they’re doing right while discussing things that may not have met expectations. Many managers like to use the feedback burger framework (positive feedback-negative-positive) to address issues while also motivating their employees to uphold existing strengths.
Now that you’ve offered positive, constructive feedback, round up the action items and offer to keep the recipient accountable. Hopefully, you’re on the same page regarding future expectations, so help them figure out the next steps, set goals, and check in to revisit their progress. If you’re in a position to mentor someone, you’ll need to follow through with regular meetings or touchpoints.
Promoting healthy discussion is one way to cultivate psychological safety in the workplace. Show vulnerability and reciprocity by inviting constructive feedback yourself. You’ve offered a new perspective and given valuable insights into how they can improve. Why not ask for their guidance on your work?
As leaders continue to work through how to best navigate virtual interactions with employees, here are a few quick things to take note of:
You’re not perfect, not even close. You’re human and prone to mistakes and weaknesses, just like everyone else. Sometimes we forget that, and that’s why we should welcome constructive feedback every now and again.
Besides, furthering your career means you’re always learning and developing new (and sometimes old) skills. Constructive feedback plays a significant part in that growth process. So, try not to be too defensive.
Sure, it’s not going to feel great to confront your weaknesses head-on like that, but this person is also doing you a service by guiding you to a solution, which is more valuable than you can imagine. Many times, we already know the issue, but when we hear it come out of someone else’s mouth, that’s often the kick in the pants we need to finally take action. Eventually, as you progress in your career, you’ll ask for constructive feedback on a regular basis!
Most importantly, listen attentively to the feedback you’re given. Take notes if you have to. Fight the urge to make an excuse or ask a question until after the person is finished talking.
Once they’re done, try your best to summarize the problem they’ve identified out loud and ask questions to clarify the specifics. If the problem is legitimate—and let’s be honest, it probably is—try to understand its scope and how you can work through it together.
This means looking at the facts presented, the problem articulated and plotting out a way to proactively improve or remedy the situation. Before you act on your plan, share it with your manager or whoever gave you feedback to see if it could be improved upon. Once your plan is ready to go, get started!
Constructive feedback is really the cornerstone of a well-rounded employee-manager relationship. Ideally, that relationship will allow for feedback to go both ways. It’s important to remember that learning and development is ongoing for all of us, no matter your level in the organization or status in the field. Embrace constructive feedback, and you’ll go far!
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