Giving Constructive Feedback in the Workplace


March 12, 2018 - Gini Beqiri

Providing constructive feedback to employees is essential because it highlights how well they're performing and what improvements are needed for development. Managers often feel nervous about providing constructive feedback because they want to avoid disheartening their employees.

Well-delivered feedback should be educating and motivating rather than discouraging. In this article we discuss how to give constructive feedback at work.

What is constructive feedback

Providing constructive feedback is a way of reinforcing positive behaviour and discussing solutions for areas of improvement.

Qualities of constructive feedback:

  • Provides specific information
  • Based on observations and facts
  • Solution-focused

Benefits of constructive feedback

In a 2014 study conducted by Harvard Business Review, 57% of participants stated that they preferred constructive feedback over praise (43%). This suggests that most employees want to know what they can do to improve their performance.

Benefits of constructive feedback include:

Enhances performance and assists with professional growth: Employees want to perform at their best and generally want to progress. By providing them with constructive feedback you will be assisting them in their progression and also showing them that you and the organisation cares about employee development.

Clarifies expectations: You can clarify your expectations of employees which will provide them with guidance and a sense of purpose.

Benefits the organisation's performance: The organisation is working towards the same objective but if you do not make this explicit then employees may prioritise other goals. Constructive feedback can guide them.

Improve team relations: Addressing difficulties can reduce tensions between the team, for example, addressing an individual's interpersonal problems can improve team relations.

Giving and receiving feedback to an employee

Common mistakes

If feedback is not provided effectively it can discourage and demotivate staff. The recipient may remain resentful and it can ruin your relationship with that employee. Here are some common mistakes to avoid:

  • Try not to worry about the recipient taking the negative feedback personally. Remember that your aim is to help their employee performance - you could even tell them this. Ask them to reflect on the feedback so you can correct any misinterpretations.
  • It's important to provide feedback to all employees and not just to the ones who need to improve the most. High performers want to know how to advance professionally, if they do not receive this information they may go elsewhere.
  • Don't avoid bringing up issues because you don't want to upset the recipient. The issue may worsen and consequently be harder to resolve in the future.
  • Sometimes managers can forget to provide positive feedback because positive behaviour can just be seen as expected behaviour. Don't forget the importance of providing positive feedback as this reinforces positive behaviour.

What is the foundation for giving constructive feedback?

The foundations follow the three C’s model:

  • Credibility: Recipients must view you as credible. This is achieved by understanding what each employee does and observing their work.
  • Candour: Be polite, respectful and thoughtful but don't avoid the issue as that's not helpful for either of you.
  • Care: Employees should feel as though you're providing this information because you want to help them rather than yourself.

How to give constructive feedback

1. Preparation

Pre-established goals: It's useful to have established goals and measurements with the employee before a review. This allows you to focus your feedback on areas they want to develop. If you don't already have a system like this in place, create one by meeting one-to-one with employees and identifying, for example, monthly/quarterly or annual goals.

Invite them for a meeting: Schedule a meeting and explain to the employee what you will be discussing rather than ordering them into your office unexpectedly. This is less likely to make them feel anxious and it gives them time to prepare. Say something quite informal and optimistic, such as, "Can we have a catch-up at 3pm tomorrow to discuss your progress?" rather than "Come to my office at 3pm tomorrow so we can review your performance."

If you want to speak to an employee about a specific event a good way to approach this is by asking "Would you be willing to discuss what happened at X?" We can do it now or after the team meeting if that's better for you."

Person-to-person: Always provide constructive feedback person-to-person, preferably face-to-face, rather than over an email so it cannot be misinterpreted.

One-on-one: Give feedback in private as you don't want to embarrass your employees and this allows for a more open discussion.

Giving constructive feedback during a business meeting

2. Communication techniques

Communicate care: Communicate that you care so the recipient understands that is why you are providing this feedback. To show care when delivering negative feedback express your concern. This will highlight that this information is important and that you're providing it because you want to help them.

Manner: Avoid expressing anger, irritation or disappointment. Your constructive feedback will become criticism, the point of the message will be diluted and the employee is likely to become emotional.

Be direct: Always get to the point and be straightforward rather than being vague. This will increase the clarity of your points.

Be sincere: Avoid linking positive feedback to negative feedback as this creates mixed messages. This is often done by using the words "however/but/although". For example, "Your communication skills are very strong but..." This suggests that the positive message was not sincere.

Encourage: Negative statements that scold can make people defensive and ignore your feedback, such as "You should not..." Instead be encouraging, for example:

"Perhaps you could aim to/try..."

"Have you thought about trying...?"

Be appreciative: When delivering positive feedback, show that you are grateful and appreciative. Use examples to explain why their actions were so valuable.


3. Content of constructive feedback

Only constructive feedback: Never give feedback if there isn't a constructive purpose of providing it.

Start Positive: Ensure that you provide a positive point first as the employee is likely to feel more confident and respond better to any negative feedback.

Provide a balance: Balance the positive and negative feedback throughout the conversation because this will make the employee more receptive to the negative feedback; it shows them that there are improvements to work on but they're also doing things well. If you list all of the negatives one after the other it would be discouraging for the employee - they may either shut off or not trust the feedback. However, only include positive feedback if it helps with their work performance.

Pick a few areas for improvement: The employee may have several areas they need to develop but providing all of this is one meeting could be too confusing and discouraging. Provide around three areas of improvement. This way your employee can work on improving these optimally rather than trying to improve lots of areas sub-optimally.

Provide context and examples: You must be as specific as possible to make feedback practical. Do this by using exact examples of behaviours or situations. For example, saying "Your presentation skills aren't great" doesn't show the recipient what they need to change and why this is damaging their performance. Instead you can say "I've noticed that when you deliver presentations you often read from a script which..." This will allow them to recall previous presentations and think about what changes they can make.

Ask for permission: A technique for introducing specific examples is to ask the recipient for permission. Such as saying "Can I share an observation with you?" The recipient may be more inclined to take the feedback onboard.

Stick to observations: State observations and facts rather than interpretations or opinions. Observations are what you see and hear. Interpretations are judgements about what you see and hear. Concentrate on what the employee did, such as, "You finished the project two days after the deadline" rather than assuming their motivation: "I'm guessing that you didn't like this project." Only describe what you noticed and then move on to discussing the impact of the behaviour.

Focus on actions: Similarly, focus on the employee's actions and not their personality to avoid your feedback looking like a personal attack. To explain behaviour use adverbs as they describe actions and avoid adjectives as these describe nouns. For example, instead of saying "You seemed uninterested during Monday's presentation", which is making an assumption, you could say "During Monday's presentation you were frequently on your phone..."

Constructive feedback in business meeting

Explain the impact: Explain why an observation is important by using facts and explaining how their behaviour has affected others, including the organisation. This will encourage them to make changes. For example. "I've noticed that you've been getting in around 9:20 during the last week. Other staff members have been covering your phone as well as their own phones."

Understanding: Allow your employee to respond to your feedback and explain themselves. You want to understand why an employee has behaved in a certain way before deciding on what actions to take. In the meeting, after providing them an example of their behaviour in a situation ask them to explain their thought process using open questions, such as, "What are your thoughts on this situation?" Once you have an answer you can choose how to deal with it.

When employees are explaining their actions they can often identify where they went wrong and come up with solutions to get a better outcome. This helps you out in the meeting because the employees show themselves what they need to work on.


4. Create solutions together

  • Help your employee find solutions for themselves by asking open questions such as, "How do you think you could do this better in the future?"
  • Provide your own suggestions and get their thoughts on these ideas.
  • Explain the importance of making these changes and the positive results it will have.
  • Create clear measurable goals so employees can assess whether they are improving.
  • Ask your employee how you help them achieve these goals.

5. Ending

Summarise: Summarise the key points and the goals. This has the benefit of confirming that the employee has understood what has been discussed.

Close positively: Try to end the conversation with something you have positively noticed so they leave feeling confident and encouraged. If the conversation does end more negatively, show the employee that you are confident in them achieving the goals set.


6. Frequency and timings of reviews

Review regularly: If possible, try to schedule regular reviews so your employees become accustomed to receiving positive and negative feedback. Also, if you are providing only yearly reviews, this can slow the professional growth of employees and frustrate them.

Be timely: Try to be timely with feedback, such as, delivering feedback the end of a project. The impact of feedback reduces when too much time has passed as the event is no longer fresh in their minds.

Guidelines for giving constructive feedback

To summarise, follow these steps to provide constructive feedback:

  1. State what you will be covering briefly
  2. Describe a specific observation
  3. Describe the reactions to the behaviour and the impact of it
  4. Allow your employee to respond
  5. Discuss solutions and set goals
  6. Summarise the key points and the goals. Emphasise your confidence in them to succeed