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How to Give Constructive Feedback in the Workplace

October 25, 2022 - Dom Barnard

Communication within any team is vital. This is especially true when there are solutions to be found regarding specific problems at work or if the overall effectiveness of team members’ working practices could be improved.

However important these problem-solving conversations may be, it can be difficult for a manager or co-worker to raise areas of concern in discussions with employees or other team members.

Here we outline the importance of being able to give constructive feedback to other members of your team, as well as some tips on how to use this method of feedback effectively.

What is constructive feedback?

Feedback is a necessary part of communication between a manager and their employees and also between colleagues within a team. Workers need to know what is going well, what’s not going so well, and what they need to do to maximize their output and to best benefit themselves and the business.

Positive feedback consists of praise, encouragement, and recognition of achievements, and is obviously important for raising team morale and encouraging productivity.

Of course, things don’t always go well, however. At times it might be necessary to draw a worker’s attention to a mistake or to less than ideal working practices more generally. If framed in a negative way, this is criticism, which can feel very personal and could be disheartening for your co-workers to hear.

With constructive feedback, it is possible to highlight issues in a way that might feel less critical or personal to your team members, while also looking for solutions and moving forward in a positive way. This can be a very effective method of approaching any difficulties and of managing a team to its best potential.

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:

1. 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.

2. Clarifies expectations

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

3. 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.

4. Improve team relations

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

Do people want to hear this feedback?

As a team leader, you might feel that other members of your team will be less than enthusiastic to hear about any issues you might have with their work. If you are working within a team below management level, you might also have the difficult task of encouraging your colleagues to approach things in a different way.

It’s certainly true that it’s not easy to be criticized. A worker will be likely to become demotivated and demoralized if they feel you think they are not good enough.

However, constructive feedback is intended to be a less critical and more problem-solving form of feedback, which can lead to better team spirit and mutual respect between colleagues.

If delivered in the right way, constructive feedback should help an employee to feel encouraged to improve and supported to fix or avoid mistakes.

What are the foundations for giving 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

It’s important that members of your team feel supported and encouraged to work enthusiastically and effectively. Too much negative feedback can really dampen the spirits of individuals or even a team as a whole.

To keep morale boosted, you should always help your team members find solutions to any issues, and this is where constructive feedback comes into its own. Here are some tips on how to give effective constructive feedback to your team.

1. Hold regular one-to-one meetings with your team

To help ensure that your team members feel valued and heard, consider holding regular one-to-one meetings with each of them. This will create a space for them to raise any issues they have, and it will be easier for you to work with them on an ongoing basis to iron out any current or potential issues that need discussing.

You could also make time in the diary to have an ad hoc one-to-one with an employee if any further difficulties arise, but it’s easier to keep the feedback constructive if you work this type of regular discussion into your ongoing management style.

Your team members will feel respected, valued, and listened to, and they will be more likely to come to you with any problems before they get out of hand.

Feedback meeting in an office

2. Emphasise the positive

It’s never easy to discuss problems at work, especially if an issue has arisen from something someone has done (or not done). However, we all make mistakes, and we can all benefit from learning from them.

If you find yourself in the position of having to have a difficult conversation with a member of your team, help take the pressure off the situation by leading with some positive feedback.

People are more likely to feel motivated at work if they feel they are appreciated and valued, so make sure your employees know that you recognize their positive efforts before tackling any problems. This will also help them to receive constructive feedback more effectively, as they won’t feel that they are being criticized so much.

3. Don’t make it personal

An employee will quickly become demotivated if they feel they are under attack or being personally criticized. Frame your discussions to focus on the issue that needs addressing, and emphasize how you might work together to move forwards in dealing with it, rather than focusing directly on the working practice of the individual.

This will help ensure that their morale is boosted and they will be more likely to be able to address the necessary problems effectively.

Practice Giving Feedback

Practice giving both positive and negative feedback to your colleagues in the workplace. Choose how to reply based on their reaction.Learn More

4. Keep it simple

You might find that you have more than one issue that you need to take up with a colleague or member of your team, and it could be tempting to list them all in the same meeting. Consider simplifying your feedback, perhaps just taking one or two of the more important issues at a time.

Taking one issue at a time will enable you and your team member to work together to find a solution before moving on to the next problem. This is an important approach in working with a growth mindset and in keeping tasks achievable in order to promote success.

It will also help to protect your team member’s well-being if they don’t feel that you’re picking them up on everything they are doing. This will benefit their mental health as an employee and your working relationship with each other.

It will also have a knock-on effect of benefiting your business as a whole, since workers are likely to be more productive if they feel encouraged rather than criticized.

5. Help find solutions – and make a plan

A big part of giving constructive feedback is working together to help to find a solution for any problems. This is the key to the word ‘constructive’. During your discussions with your team members, it will help if you suggest or brainstorm with them some ways that their work could be even better.

Even if things are going well, there is always room for improvement, and your co-workers will feel encouraged to perform at their best if they are working for the team.

It almost always helps to pool ideas at work, and it could well be that your employees genuinely can’t see another way of approaching a task. As a manager your role is to guide your team to success, so talk through solutions together as a way out of difficulties. This will also help to boost team morale as your employees will feel supported.

It will help to draw up a problem-solving plan with your team members as a practical way to implement any changes. Not only will this make these changes easier to approach, but it also gives you and your employee something to come back to later, when following up and discussing progress.

6. Finish on a high

Finally, close any awkward discussions by emphasizing again what’s going well. This can be recapping on the positive elements that you drew upon at the start of your meeting, or it could be an encouraging word about the next steps for improvement.

Team members will feel much more motivated and able to act on constructive feedback effectively if they leave discussions with you on a high, rather than feeling like their efforts at work have been pulled apart.

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.

Structure for giving constructive feedback

Use this structure in your feedback meeting.

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 careCommunicate 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.

Practice Giving Feedback

Practice giving both positive and negative feedback to your colleagues in the workplace. Choose how to reply based on their reaction.Learn More

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.

Delivered in the right way, constructive feedback is about working together as a team to make improvements to working practice. Your team will be stronger and more productive for being able to have these discussions with you.