It’s arguably the hardest part of the job for any people manager or team leader. Let’s be honest: Giving constructive feedback is never easy.
Getting to a place where you can consistently offer effective feedback takes practice, as well as considerable courage. Many managers err on the side of all positive feedback, preferring to focus on what the employee brings to the table rather than where they’re lacking. Praise has plenty of merit, of course, but if you never offer your direct reports negative feedback, they’ll never be able to reflect and learn from their mistakes.
Furthermore, a manager who can’t occasionally dole out honest feedback might lose respect and credibility among team members. After all, constructive feedback—giving it, absorbing it, and learning from it—is core to employee engagement and a sound professional development cycle.
Behavioral data can give you a head start. By understanding someone’s strongest behavioral drives, you’ll know the kind of feedback they prefer (the medium, the tone, and the language), and can anticipate how they might respond.
Since many managers derive courage from preparation, here are five approaches to the feedback process that can truly help employees grow and improve:
- Make feedback timely.
- Be truthful.
- Be specific.
- Take an unassuming approach.
- Don’t rush positive feedback.
Let’s get into each of these steps.
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Make feedback timely.
Have you ever been in a situation where a direct report or colleague drops the ball, or misses the mark on a task, and the opportunity to address it passes right by?
That’s not uncommon. It can be difficult to find the right moment, or the right venue, for offering critical feedback. But making feedback timely can actually simplify the delivery, and ultimately promotes trust between the manager and their direct report. Even if it’s not immediately apparent, most employees will respect a manager who can address an issue head-on, rather than procrastinating, belaboring, or overthinking the conversation.
By providing constructive criticism when it’s immediately relevant, rather than waiting until, say, a performance review, you can actually reduce the gravity of these conversations. Most employees are more receptive to specific examples offered in real time, as opposed to being subjected to a laundry list of “areas for improvement.” When employee feedback is directly related to the day or week in which it’s delivered, it resonates. And it’s more likely to help employees learn and grow.
Easier said than done, right? Trust is the hallmark of any high-functioning team, and a lack of trust is a mark of dysfunction. Trust is key to enabling healthy conflict—such as a feedback session that might be challenging for all parties.
Sugar coating feedback ultimately doesn’t help anyone achieve their desired outcome—to avoid the same mistakes—and it too often requires repeat conversations.
Instead, when it comes to giving feedback, managers should equate “truthfulness” with objectivity. Think of yourself as a reporter: What happened? Whose actions led to the result? What was the fallout, and what could have been done differently?
Objectivity is the enemy of assumptions and accusations. By sticking to the facts, you can allow the employee to offer explanations and fill in the gaps. And in talking through those facts, they may even realize on their own how they could have better approached the situation.
The best feedback isn’t just objective, but also keen on the details. Let’s consider a scenario in which a newer employee may have rubbed a client the wrong way:
Rather than asking the employee to generally consider their tone or word choice, a manager who offers constructive feedback will run the tape (or pull up the email). They’ll pause at specific intervals, highlighting where and how a certain response might be improved. They’ll offer alternative phrasing, or suggestions for how the employee can soften the conversation in the future.
Being specific might also mean leveling with reports—reminding them that you’ve been there, too. The most respected managers are often the ones who have been in the trenches and learned from the experience. And, they’re able to recall specific scenarios and provide actionable takeaways from which their charges can benefit.
Take an unassuming approach.
A good feedback session is two-sided. It’s important to state the facts you have as a manager, but equally important that you give the employee a chance to explain their side of the story. More often than not, by revealing their rationale, they’ll actually help you coach them through how to approach the situation in the future.
Here are a few examples of assumptive or leading questions to avoid:
- Did you feel like this wasn’t a big deal?
- Is it fair to say you weren’t prepared?
- Were you ever going to bring this to my attention?
These sorts of questions will trigger an employee’s defenses. If you think you know what might have dictated their approach, you can soften statements with phrases like “It’s my understanding that ___”, or “Is it possible you ___?”
Any opportunity to provide clarity or additional context is an opening for effective feedback. The best feedback sessions reveal insights neither party had before, allowing both employees (and their relationship) to learn and grow.
Don’t rush the positive feedback.
Savor the good stuff. Just as constructive feedback lands best when it’s delivered in a timely, specific, and truthful manner, positive feedback needs space to breathe.
Whether you’re in an annual performance review or having a casual coffee check-in, make sure positive feedback can marinate. It doesn’t matter much when in the conversation you deliver it—whether you want to lead with it or land with it—but positive feedback is best when unrushed.
State what the employee did with clarity, proper pace, and the appropriate body language. Smile. Emphasize and enunciate the highlights. Connect the dots between their actions and a broader company goal or initiative. Speak to the impact they’re having. That sort of validation goes a long way in engaging and inspiring employees.
Just as corrective feedback can promote growth when delivered carefully, positive feedback can promote discretionary effort from your people. But they have to clearly hear it. Consider the difference between this everyday pat on the back, and some thoughtful, specific praise:
“Hey, you did a really good job in that meeting.”
“I really appreciate how you offered an explanation of our spike in organic traffic. It wasn’t required, but it helped provide the group context, and connected the dots between your work and our quarterly targets. That sort of proactivity sets a great example for the rest of our team.”
Great feedback inspires growth and leadership.
The best managers inspire leadership at all levels of the organization. They’re not threatened by direct reports who go the extra mile—they see that as an extension of their own impact, and a boon to the company’s mission. And they can specifically articulate how and where those reports are growing professionally .
Providing feedback—positive or negative—can be challenging for any manager or leader. But with a thoughtful, growth-oriented approach, it’s made easier.
Ask yourself: Which team members will benefit from a feedback session? How are they behaviorally wired?
With that sort of mentality, you’re more than likely to see your feedback land positively, rather than as any sort of personal attack. And with time, you’ll see those same people grow and improve from the evaluations you’ve offered.