Giving constructive feedback can feel like walking a tightrope while juggling a pair of rabid ferrets—scary, awkward, and a wee bit dangerous.
Sound familiar? Lucky for you, it doesn’t have to be this way.
You can learn to give constructive feedback that’s empowering for both you and your employees—it’ll just take a bit of know-how and intention. Fortunately, you’ve come to the right place.
Constructive feedback can be a game-changer for your business and your workers’ lives. Say the right thing at the right moment, and you might just send your colleague on a career-altering upward spiral, and there’s a good chance they’ll take your business results with it.
Unfortunately, many leaders drop the ball when giving constructive feedback. Often, it comes off as offensive and (frankly) deconstructive—and it’s hard to make amends to damaged feelings and burned bridges.
Let’s help you avoid that issue.
Learning how to give constructive feedback doesn’t take a 10-hour long course or a weekend retreat. We’ll show you practical steps you can start implementing today that’ll forever improve the way you counsel employees and coworkers.
In fact, you’re already witnessing first-hand how to get started.
Give this intro a read-through again. It’s a prime example of how you might approach constructive feedback.
Once you’re ready, move on to learn the 11 ways you can give better constructive feedback.
What Is Constructive Feedback?
Let’s get on the same page about what constructive feedback is (and isn’t). Constructive feedback is an evaluation of an employee’s performance intended to build skills and behaviors.
Let’s break it down into the two primary elements:
- Constructive: First and foremost, your feedback is meant to build (construct) improvements. It needs to be direct, practical, and uplifting. If it doesn’t lift up your employees, it’s putting them down—there’s no middle ground. Don’t let your feedback slip into the realm of deconstruction.
- Feedback: Feedback needs to be accurate and honest. Sometimes, you’ll provide constructive feedback that’s positive, and other times it’s going to be negative. Negative feedback isn’t off-limits—it’s actually necessary (and often more helpful). The end result of your constructive feedback all comes down to the approach and delivery.
Constructive feedback leads to better outcomes, while deconstructive feedback results in worse outcomes and hurt feelings.
11 Ways to Give Better Constructive Feedback
There’s a right way and a wrong way to give feedback. You’ll know when you’ve got it right, and you’ll definitely know when you get it wrong. Ultimately, you’ll learn from trial and error (that’s just human nature), but we want to set you off on the right foot.
As you read the tips below, resist the urge to become defensive or make excuses. Making any of these mistakes doesn’t mean you’re a lousy boss—it just means you have room for improvement. And it turns out everyone else does, too.
Also, remember that everyone responds differently to feedback (even constructive feedback). You can do everything right, and your employees might still walk away from the experience offended and demotivated—that’s their choice.
Learning how to receive feedback is probably even more important than learning how to give it, but that’s a whole nother subject to unpack. Let’s stay on track.
1. Strive for Radical Candor
Radical candor means “to care personally and challenge directly at the same time.” It’s a way of telling people what they’re doing wrong (and right) with empathy and compassion—not tough love or “my way or the highway” thinking.
Radical candor is not brutal honesty.
Here are your options for management:
- Obnoxious Aggression: Mean but sometimes helpful. It’s being a jerk that occasionally helps people in the wrong way. Imagine a Navy SEAL drill sergeant screaming in a would-be soldier’s face. What they’re saying might save the soldier’s life one day, but it might just send them into a therapy room, too. That’s not who you want to be.
- Ruinous Empathy: Nice but to a harmful degree. This is when you see someone with ketchup smeared across their face but say nothing because you don’t want to embarrass them or have an awkward moment. It doesn’t help you, and it doesn’t support them.
- Manipulative Insincerity: It’s just what it sounds like. You neither care about your employees nor do you help them. It’s fake praise or criticism for the sake of criticism. It’s the blatantly obvious passive-aggressive behavior that makes your employees question what your hidden agenda might be.
- Radical Candor: Kind and helpful. It’s to be friendly and sincere while having the courage to say what needs to be said. It’s telling your friend their zipper is down to help them avoid future embarrassment or informing an employee they need to step up their work (and how) to avoid a potential layoff.
Radical candor is the only right option, and it’s the management style all leaders should strive for.
2. State Why It Matters
Let your employee know why you’re giving them constructive feedback. This sets the stage for where you’re coming from, and it also cues them in on the overall purpose of the conversation.
Think about the real reasons you need to have this discussion. The employee may be:
- Underperforming and hurting the team’s results
- Not understanding an assigned task
- Offending teammates
- Displaying troublesome behaviors or attitudes
- Missing meetings or showing up late to work
- Breaking rules of conduct
Don’t forget to focus on the why.
For example, “I want to let you know that your performance has been dipping over the last couple of quarters, and I’m afraid it might continue dropping. If that happens, your job might be in jeopardy. What can we do to help get you back on track?”
Read more: The Importance of Teamwork in 2022
3. Start with the Good Cop
Start with the good news first. This isn’t dishonest or manipulative—there’s definitely good you can find in your employee and the situation. If that’s not the case, you probably should be having a discussion about a severance package rather than constructive feedback.
Let your employee know what’s going well. For example, you might start the conversation with: “You’ve been doing great work on the last few email newsletters—open and click-through rates have been on the up and up. However, I noticed the campaigns have been going out later than anticipated, and you’ve missed a few deadlines. Are there any obstacles I can remove to help you ship on time?”
Employees will respond better when they feel seen and validated. If you start with the bad news, they might be offended because you didn’t notice what they’re doing right, and they’ll likely shut off after that.
4. Be Clear and Concise
Don’t drag things out. Get straight to the point.
Start with what’s working, and then get right to the constructive feedback. If you’re having a spur-of-the-moment meeting with an employee, they likely know what’s coming—don’t let the suspense build.
It’s best to deliver feedback as soon as possible. Don’t let it stew for too long. If an employee made an off-hand comment or exhibited poor behavior in a meeting, bring it up in your weekly check-in rather than waiting 6 months for your semi-annual review.
Workers know how to recognize a feedback sandwich. It starts with something positive, navigates to the negative, and finishes with something positive. While there’s nothing wrong with this method, it can become a thick, hard-to-swallow sandwich if it’s too big.
Make your feedback quick, simple, and digestible.
5. Provide Solutions (Not Just Problems)
Bring solutions to the table when delivering constructive feedback. Don’t just focus on the problems—present what they (and you) can do to fix it.
A bad example of this might be: “You clearly don’t understand the program, and you confused the client further. We can’t look unprepared when we get into these pitches.”
A good example of this might be: “You seemed to be confused about a few of our products in the meeting. Can I help you with a refresher, or are there any questions I can answer before our next sales pitch?”
Everyone makes mistakes (including you). Instead of focusing on the past, highlight opportunities in the future.
6. Nail Your Timing
Timing is everything. You can deliver perfectly constructed feedback to an employee, but it could go up in flames if the timing is wrong. Think about the hour, day, week, and month.
Informing an employee that their job is at risk right before Christmas break is a poor way to send them into the holiday season—they’ll probably spend it looking for a new job. You’ve likely already noticed the problem—why not give them the feedback at the beginning of the month or after they’ve returned from their time off?
Friday afternoons are also a bad time to call your employee for a quick constructive chat. They’re tired, wrapping things up, and looking forward to the weekend. Don’t ruin their evening with feedback, especially if it can wait until Monday or Tuesday.
7. Be Empathetic
Constructive feedback should come from a place of caring—not an obligation. It’s not a bad thing to let your employee know that you care. You’ll have a hard time finding a worker who wishes their boss was a bit more distant and indifferent.
Put yourself in your employee’s shoes. How are they going to feel when you deliver the feedback? What could you do or say to reassure them, motivate them, and help them handle things the right way?
Taking the time to think through this scenario is a great first step in building empathy. It’ll prepare you to be more sensitive (yet honest) when delivering your feedback.
8. Make It a Conversation
Constructive feedback is a 2-way street (or at least it should be), and it’s your job to give employees the green light. Give them opportunities to speak up and voice their thoughts.
You might find that your employee missed recent meetings because a loved one has COVID-19, or you may discover they’re burnt out and need help. Don’t probe into personal matters, but also create a safe space where employees can share if they feel comfortable.
9. Don’t Expect Overnight Change
Your feedback might need to soak in for a bit before your employee makes a change—and that’s OK. Give your colleague time to absorb the feedback, accept it, and take action.
Giving your employee a time frame might feel like an ultimatum, but it creates clear expectations for when they need to turn things around. For example, you might approach constructive feedback with: “I know things have been difficult recently, but the team really needs you to step up and carry your weight. We need to see improvements in your numbers before the end of this quarter.”
Feedback like this lets your employee know that it’s serious, but it also prevents them from sprinting back to their desk and working through the night and into the next morning (which isn’t going to be good for anyone).
10. Keep It Private
Your team’s weekly catch-up is not the time to point out individuals’ flaws. Save your constructive feedback for private conversations, and allow adequate time for both you and your employee to hash things out to completion.
Pointing out a teammate’s flaws in front of peers might offend or embarrass them, which is a surefire way to put them on the defensive. Save the hard conversations for behind closed doors.
Praise in public—criticize in private.
11. Be Open to Feedback
As the manager or boss, you’re not perfect—and you know that already. Open the door to receive feedback. If you can dish it, you can take it.
This could be as simple as: “I know my management style is a bit different than your previous boss’s. Is there anything you think I can improve or work on?”
It’s your job to foster a culture of honesty, one where your employees can candidly tell you what’s going right and wrong. Open your ears when your employees speak up—what they say might be the feedback you need to improve and grow your career.
Give Yourself a Healthy Dose of Constructive Feedback
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