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The topic of constructive feedback is widely discussed, but in practice, it’s rarely done right — if at all.
It’s not surprising that negative feedback is often avoided. After all, throughout our lives we’ve been taught that if we have nothing nice to say, not to say it at all. Giving feedback challenges this idea and can feel uncomfortable. Will the recipient take your feedback the wrong way? Will their feelings be hurt?
In reality, not giving your team constructive feedback is doing them a disservice. As a team, you should be able to rely on each other for support. That includes calling out when improvements need to be made.
Brennan McEachran, CEO and Co-Founder of Hypercontext, compares giving feedback to telling someone they have lettuce in their teeth. While it may seem uncomfortable to tell them, it’s probably something they want to know before going through the whole day or, worse, getting on stage. And, you’d want someone to do the same for you. That’s why he makes a “lettuce pact” with employees on their first day: He’ll tell you when you have metaphorical lettuce in your teeth and expects the same in return.
Giving constructive feedback (and being open to receiving it) is actually one of the best things you can do to help your team flourish. But there’s a right and wrong way to go about it, and it’s important to know the difference.
In this article we’ll explore:
- What is constructive feedback?
- Why feedback is important.
- Common mistakes people make when giving feedback.
- How to approach constructive feedback.
Constructive feedback is a way of addressing concerns or issues to help people improve. What differentiates constructive feedback from regular old feedback is that it’s useful.
You’re not merely pointing out what someone’s doing wrong, you’re also working with them to help improve the situation.
Let’s look at an example: One of your team members is making a lot of careless mistakes. If you tell them, “You’re making a lot of careless mistakes,” that is technically feedback. But it’s not constructive.
Why not? It’s not useful for them. Now they understand that they’ve made some minor mistakes, but they don’t know when those mistakes were made or the impact they had — which makes the path forward very unclear. In fact, it may merely cause more stress and potentially lead to more mistakes.
When your negative feedback isn’t constructive, it turns into plain and simple criticism. And no one likes being criticized! Especially when they don’t know how to fix it.
Constructive feedback, on the other hand, would look more like this: “I noticed that the formula in the spreadsheet you sent me last week had some minor errors in it, which caused all the numbers to be off. This has happened a few times lately. How can we avoid mistakes like this in the future?”
In this example, it’s clear what situation you’re addressing and the mistakes that were made. When you give constructive feedback, the recipient has an explicit understanding of what they need to do to improve.
Giving effective feedback is an essential part of managing a team. While it may always be tough to hear and to give, it absolutely shouldn’t result in employees feeling demotivated or attacked. When done right, feedback has the opposite effect. It provides employees with guidance and direction.
There are a lot of benefits to constructive feedback:
- Continued learning — Constructive feedback is often an opportunity for coaching. When people understand where their weaknesses lie and are given the tools and knowledge to improve, there’s massive potential for learning.
- Motivation and engagement — You’re not doing your employee any favours by making them think that they’re doing their jobs perfectly (is that even possible?). Employees want a challenge. According to a 2018 Korn Ferry Survey, 33% of employees were looking for a new job because they were bored and needed a new challenge. When you communicate the improvements that you’d like your team members to make, you’re laying out a new challenge and helping them succeed.
- Showing employees they’re valued — As we’ve already established, giving feedback isn’t easy. By taking the time to sit down with your team members and give them constructive feedback, you’re showing that you value them and care about their success.
- Career advancement — Consistent constructive feedback removes obstacles in the way of career advancement. Once employees understand what may be holding them back, it’ll be easier for them to course correct.
So while it may feel intimidating to deliver, constructive feedback is an essential part of the growth of your team and a must-have skill for managers.
👉 Be a management pro with our 6 must-have skills for effectively managing employees.
Constructive feedback is clearly important, but delivering it isn’t necessarily intuitive. When critiquing someone, whether constructive or not, it can easily go awry.
Here are some of the practices to avoid when it comes time to give constructive criticism to your team.
The wrong setting
This one’s a simple premise: Praise in public, criticize in private.
No one wants to be called out in front of their colleagues. Even with the best delivery, when you give constructive feedback in a public setting, you risk alienating and embarrassing your team members.
Instead, consider delivering your feedback in your one-on-ones or a separate meeting that’s just the two of you.
Positive feedback, on the other hand, can be given in your one-on-ones, team meetings, town halls, you name it! Recognize the work of your team members whenever you get the chance — it goes a long way in motivating people. At Hypercontext, we do bi-weekly shout-outs during our demo-day meeting to encourage recognition and have a whole Slack channel dedicated to team shout-outs.
Being too vague
Sometimes, in an effort to be nice, managers are too vague when it comes to feedback. To avoid getting too specific, feedback givers will use “blur words” — words that need more explanation. For example, “the spreadsheet you created wasn’t great.” What does great mean? What improvement should be made?
You’re not doing your team any favours by being wishy-washy. They leave the conversation not knowing exactly what they did wrong and unclear on how to move forward.
Instead, try being very specific. For example, try saying something like, “In column x of x spreadsheet, the formula you created had an error, which resulted in inaccurate data.”
When you’re specific, your employee will know exactly how to remedy the situation next time and waste less time trying to figure out what they did wrong.
Being too harsh
Specific shouldn’t be confused with harsh!
Delivery matters when giving feedback. If you’re too aggressive, your feedback will likely have the opposite effect that you want it to. When people feel attacked, they shut down and get defensive. When they’re in defence mode, they’re no longer open to what you have to say. Plus, you’ll get uncomfortable too. It’s just an awkward situation all around.
A great example of how to be direct without being too harsh is Kim Scott’s radical candor framework. This approach is all about “caring personally while challenging directly.” While it’s important to challenge people, do so with care and humanity,
A one-way street
Feedback isn’t solely something that managers give to their employees. On the contrary, the best feedback givers also welcome receiving constructive feedback.
Give your employees permission to be open and honest with you. Creating a continuous feedback loop will foster a safe space where it’s easier and more comfortable to both give and receive constructive feedback when needed.
Waiting until reviews
If you’re reading this article thinking you’re only going to implement the advice a couple of times a year, think again! Continuous feedback is incredibly important.
According to Gallup, when managers provide weekly feedback (as opposed to annual), team members are:
- 5.2x more likely to strongly agree that they receive meaningful feedback.
- 3.2x more likely to strongly agree they are motivated to do outstanding work.
- 2.7x more likely to be engaged at work.
Giving continuous feedback can seem especially challenging when managing remote employees. When you’re not in an office together, you can’t pull someone to the side and have a conversation. Therefore, in a remote environment, everything becomes a bit more formal. You need to set up a call or bring up the feedback in your next 1:1. But don’t let that stop you. When you foster an environment in which feedback is the norm, it’ll become much easier to give than waiting for your quarterly or, worse, annual review.
👉 Read our article about supporting and motivating employees working remotely.
Now you know some of the most important don’ts of feedback giving. But what about the dos?
Even when you know what not to do, giving effective feedback is difficult. According to a Gallup survey, only 26% of employees agree that the feedback they get actually improves their work.
Lucky for us, LeeAnn Renninger spent years observing people who are considered “great feedback givers.” From her research, she found that there’s a simple 4-part formula that helps deliver difficult messages effectively.
Step 1: The micro-yes
To start the conversation, ask a short yes or no question. This lets your team member know that feedback is coming and also creates an opportunity for buy-in.
Put it into action — Can we talk about the spreadsheet you put together last week?
Step 2: Datapoint
Like I mentioned in the previous section, it’s important to get specific. When your feedback is too general, it’s confusing and demotivating for the recipient. Instead, make sure you use a concrete example.
Put it into action — The formula you put into x column had an error in it.
Step 3: Show the impact
How did the situation you’re addressing impact the team? This is an important factor to communicate to your employee. When people can see the effects of their actions, it provides reasoning and logic — which our brain craves.
Put it into action — Because of that, the data in the column was incorrect and it threw off all our numbers.
Step 4: Ask a question
Similar to how you opened the conversation, you should also close the conversation with a question. This time though, it’s not a yes or no. Asking a question at the end creates a shared commitment. This isn’t about you telling your team member what they’re doing wrong. Rather, it’s a conversation about how they can improve — and that requires input from both parties.
Put it into action — Do you have any ideas for how we can avoid small mistakes like this in the future?
For more on how to give constructive feedback check out Hypercontext’s list of constructive feedback examples.
When done wrong, feedback can do more harm than good.
When done right though, constructive feedback can do wonders — positively impacting employee morale, engagement and productivity.
Before anything, the first step to delivering constructive feedback that’s effective is fostering a safe and honest environment on your team and building a foundation of trust with your employees.
Your one-on-one meetings are a great place to start.
Once you’ve created this space, it will become increasingly easier to share meaningful feedback to improve how your team works individually and together.