We’ve all been on the receiving end of negative feedback. It’s not a pleasant experience, is it? Hearing what we’ve done wrong or how we let someone down is very difficult. And we know the experience is even worse when the feedback is delivered in a way that brings out the worst in us as well!
If you’re in a position now to give feedback to someone else, you have an opportunity to give feedback effectively, even in challenging situations such as speaking to an employee whose behaviour is causing harm or discomfort to others in the workplace. Constructive feedback can help the person on the receiving end really hear what you are saying and learn how they can do better.
So what does constructive and effective feedback look like? Constructive feedback:
Is restorative or transformative rather than punitive;
Believes in the inherent capacity of the person to change and grow;
Critiques the behaviour or belief but not the whole person;
Recognizes that we all make mistakes and can learn from them;
Starts with the small things that happen, rather than waiting until things are at a crisis;
Offers specific information about what went wrong, and gives suggestions as to how it could be made better or done differently the next time;
Acknowledges positive changes and attempts that have been made and gives support to build on those changes; and
Is a two-way street. Be open to feedback as well; it’s easier for people to accept feedback from a leader if that person is also open to receiving feedback and learning from it.
The next time you must provide feedback to an employee, take some time to prepare and consider the following nine tips for giving effective feedback.
1. Make sure you acknowledge what they are doing well
It’s much easier for us to hear and accept things we could do better when we are also told what we are doing well, and why we are valued. Negative feedback is experienced by our nervous system as a threat and can activate our fight-flight-freeze response.
People are sometimes flooded with difficult emotions such as anger (my boss is an idiot and a bully), self-judgment (I am so stupid, why did I do that?), or fear (I’m going to lose my job and then my house and then my family). In this state, it can be hard to hear even constructive feedback. Hearing things we did well or reasons we are important to the workplace or the person can act as a bit of a buffer against the full impact of what we did wrong.
2. Be clear about what didn't go so well and how they could do better next time
Good feedback starts even before anything has been done. Provide your team with clear guidelines about what is expected. Doing so should help people understand how well they are meeting those expectations, and how they might be able to do so more effectively.
Consequences may be needed if expectations are not met, but give people the benefit of the doubt that they can learn and grow as long as they have clear guidelines to help them know where they are going.
3. Give them support to do better
There’s nothing worse that being told you did something wrong and then being sent out to fix it without the necessary skills or resources to do so. When giving feedback to someone, make sure you can have an honest conversation about what they need to do in order to meet expectations. Is there training that might help? Would it help for them to develop their self-awareness? Do they need a bigger budget? Maybe they need someone to help them. Giving feedback without support sets people up to fail again.
4. Give feedback frequently
Address situations early on before they become a crisis by providing frequent constructive feedback. Doing so creates a workplace culture where feedback is welcomed, expected and part of the norm rather than something to be feared as the harbinger of a crisis.
You may have noticed a number of stories in the news recently, where bad behaviour in the workplace (bullying, harassment, etc) were ignored or minimized for many years, until the point that they exploded into harassment complaints, firings, and investigations. Any large workplace crisis is made up of many small interactions and difficult behaviours that happen over a long time and go unnamed. In any of these situations, there were probably moments when people in leadership could have intervened to challenge and change harmful behaviour before it escalated. It’s up to leaders who want to decrease conflict in organizations and workplaces to be aware of the small things that happen and expect and support behaviour change, before they grow into something big.
The same is also true when it comes to giving feedback about job performance. When people are told early and frequently what they are doing well and what they could do better--and when they are given the support (training, shadowing, mentoring, and/or more resources) to be able to do a better job--then they will. Providing this type of feedback, along with the coaching, support and resources to follow-up on that feedback, is key to keeping employees happy with your organization and not looking elsewhere.
And don't forget to also give positive feedback frequently!
5. Avoid connecting feedback to punishment as much as possible
Good feedback offers people the benefit of the doubt that they want to and are capable of doing better. For people to learn and change, feedback must be constructive rather than punitive. Your feedback should give people the opportunity to correct their behaviour, along with support to do so.
Of course accountability is also very important, and sometimes consequences for not shifting behaviour are necessary. If needed, any consequences should start small and only escalate if the behaviour continues. When people come to expect punishment for doing something harmful, they entrench in their positions and defend themselves (sometimes with expensive lawyers). Or, they will just avoid coming forward with things they have questions about or aren’t sure about because doing so doesn’t feel safe.
6. Don’t feel bad about it
For me, the hardest thing about giving feedback has often been that it feels mean. It’s hard to tell people something they don’t want to hear, and people sometimes react by lashing out in defense or falling into self-criticism (see Tip 1!).
It’s important to remember that as long as you are giving feedback as kindly and fairly as you can, you are providing an opportunity for the recipient to grow and improve.
7. Notice and acknowledge small improvements
After you give someone some difficult feedback, make an extra effort to notice the ways they have taken your words to heart and any improvements they have made in their behaviour or work. Even if the improvement if very small, make sure to notice and appreciate it. That’s the best way to ensure that people are motivated to continue improving.
8. Be willing to receive feedback
Have you ever had to take feedback from someone in a position of power who was unable to look at their own behaviour and take responsibility for it?
Being perceived as someone who is willing to receive feedback as well as give it, makes it much easier for others to accept feedback from you as well and helps to build a respectful interaction. You have the opportunity to show people that it’s possible to accept feedback with humility without losing control or your role as a leader.
Many organizations use a 360 process for feedback, where an employee's subordinates, coworkers and supervisor(s) provide feedback, including a self-evaluation by the employee as well. While the concept is excellent, the 360 process can be derailed if feedback is not taken up and acted upon. The takeaway here is not to invite feedback unless you’re planning to do something with it. Asking for feedback without the willingness to act on it can actually be worse for trust and morale then never asking for feedback at all.
9. Create a culture where mistakes are encouraged
Precarious job situations, social media condemnation, polarized thinking, accusations escalating quickly to investigations: we live in a time when it can feel very dangerous to make mistakes.
Feedback doesn’t really happen in workplaces where it’s unsafe for people to come forward due to job precariousness, the threat of reprisal, or unequal access to power. If feedback is given, it often happens unequally or when bad stuff has already happens. Feedback often sounds like: “You messed up and now you’re in trouble!”
Giving and receiving constructive feedback that helps people to see what they are doing well, identify what they aren’t doing well, and feel safe enough to accept that and try something new, is a way of modeling what it looks like when we use our power over someone for good. We can create workplaces where people feel comfortable asking questions about something they’re not sure about without being worried they will face reprisal. We can demonstrate that it’s okay to make small mistakes, because people know that if they make small mistakes they also have the opportunity to learn from them before they make big ones.
If you’re interested in learning how you personally can give constructive feedback or would like to create a workplace culture where mistakes and feedback are encouraged, contact me. I offer Conflict Resolution Workshops, interpersonal coaching, and Workplace Fairness Assessments and Workplace Restoration services.