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 the productivity of their team, it’s one of the most important aspects of their job. For employees looking to learn and grow in their role, 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, according to a study by the Harvard Business Review.
If you’re on the receiving end of constructive 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 you 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 how to get better.
Let’s take a look at some of the ways we can improve the way we give and receive constructive feedback.
The difference between criticism and constructive criticism
However, before we get to that there are some key differences between criticism and constructive feedback that we need to disentangle. Although both forms are meant to challenge your ideas or ability, one is more hurtful than the other. Constructive feedback is intended to improve, elevate, correct, or otherwise help an employee recognize their weaknesses for the purpose of growing in their role.
Criticism, on the other hand, is judgmental, negatively evaluative, and often accusatory. It’s more of a way to take someone down for their perceived faults than it is to repair them.
Criticism in the workplace, as you can imagine (or have experienced firsthand), 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.
How to give constructive feedback
1. Determine if it’s necessary. 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 afterwards? Will this be a productive conversation or not? These are questions to ask yourself before you jump into things.
2. Prepare beforehand. In order 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. Since constructive feedback probably shouldn’t be delivered off the cuff, this means you’ll need to prepare beforehand. Consider doing the following:
Gather facts: use examples, statistics, and other verifiable evidence to substantiate your claims about the person’s weakness or behavior.
Assess yourself to 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?
Brainstorm solutions to the problem. 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?
Doing your homework means knowing the ins and outs of the situation before you have that difficult conversation.
3. Focus on the work, not the person. 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.
4. Be sincere. When you give constructive feedback, you want to show to the person that you’re there to help, not bring them down or point out mistakes. Your feedback should be honest and real, and so should your offer to help. This means actually being there for the person, should they need you, as they make an effort to overcome weaknesses and grow in their role. If you’re in a position to mentor someone, you’ll need to follow through.
How to receive constructive feedback
1. Recognize that constructive feedback is good for you. 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 needed to finally take action. Eventually, as you progress in your career, you’ll ask for constructive feedback on a regular basis!
2. Listen and ask questions to understand how you can improve. 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.
3. After your feedback session is over, develop a strategy and take action. This means looking at the facts presented, the problem articulated, and plotting out a way to improve or remedy the situation. Before you act on your plan, share it with your manager or whoever it was that 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!