How to give your staff constructive feedback the right way

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by Kay Mathews

Your intern got it wrong again. You’ve tried to be patient about his missteps but you can feel your right eye twitching now that he’s really messed up and cost other staff time and effort. Now is the time to instruct him with the kind of feedback that’s been seething inside you for weeks, but will you unleash anger or empathy? How firm should you be?

Giving your staff feedback is one of the touchiest tasks a manager or executive can do. You  have to walk this fine balance of helpful but forceful, encouraging yet resolute. The wrong kind of words can push a staffer to fury (or tears) and thus harm that relationship deeply. Going too soft won’t convey the gravity of the criticism. Such a conversation is so difficult we at B2BNN decided to provide you with our guide to giving helpful feedback to a staffer who might need that push in the right direction.

Set Goals

Andrea Kay, career consultant, executive coach and author of a number of books including “Work’s a Bitch and Then You Make It Work,” sets the stage for executives who are offering employees feedback on how to improve their performance with this reminder:  Most people/employees want to know how to improve.

“Before you—as a manager or executive—say anything, you need to be clear on your goal in offering feedback and critiques,” states Kay.  Keep in mind that this “is a chance to help someone improve and do their work better, and as a result, become a more valued and appreciated employee.”

According to Kay, “The reason you want to give feedback is to influence a change in behavior.”  Further, Kay notes, “This is very different than how many executives enter these conversations.  Some managers are thinking (maybe not even aware of it) that they have to ‘fix’ the person.  Or they have to deliver bad news without upsetting the person or making them feel badly.  Or they have to deliver bad news without getting the person mad at them. Or they are just trying to make someone feel better about their work.”

What Should A Supervisor Say And Avoid Saying? 

With that context in mind, Kay notes that it is helpful for managers to know what they are going to say, “but that begins way before the day you’re delivering feedback.  From the beginning of your relationship with your employee, you need to have made an emotional connection with them. It will be hard for them to ‘hear’ feedback later if there is no relationship or connection between you.”

Rather than telling the person exactly what you think they need to improve or how to improve, Kay advises trying language like:  “Have you ever thought about…?” or “What if you tried this…?”  This approach gives “the person the chance to participate in thinking through how to improve,” states Kay.  “This also helps them not feel belittled, but encouraged and open to new ideas.” 

David Esrati has worked in branding and design for over 27 years in Dayton, Ohio.  Since 1990, Esrati has been the Chief Creative Officer at this firm, The Next Wave, and employs this approach when giving employees feedback.

Esrati states, “I typically ask probing questions on how they arrived at the solution they have. What were their influences?  What are they trying to achieve?  Who is the message targeted to?  From there I try to ask them if they’ve put themselves in the customers’ shoes?  Is the message clear? Is all the information there?  I’ll often ask if they had tried other solutions – a different typeface or color scheme?”

In terms of what an executive should avoid saying, Kay advises,  black and white, judgmental comments such as “That was really bad the way you handled that conversation” should be avoided.  It is important, according to Kay, “to state facts of what happened in a particular situation and the results. Then ask, ‘Have you thought about…’ or ‘What if you tried…?’”

Lastly, Kay urges executives to “avoid burying negative feedback.”

 What Is The Best Way For An Executive To Deliver Constructive Feedback?

There are a number of techniques to the best delivery of constructive feedback by supervisors that increase the chances of employees taking it to heart and improving their performance.  Kay recommends the following do’s and don’ts.

  • Be straightforward
    “The best way to share feedback is in a straightforward manner. Start by sharing what worked. Move on to lead them through a conversation about how to improve it – whatever IT is.”
  • Don’t dance around negative feedback
    “Many executives make the mistake of dancing around critiques. They may want to be liked. Or they worry they will hurt someone.” Kay offers the following example:  I had a client who was a senior executive who was afraid to say much in his appraisal of his employee because he was afraid she would cry (something she had done previously.) This scared him because he just didn’t know how to respond. So he didn’t say anything that was helpful to her. And that hurt her career, as well as the people she served. You’re not doing anybody any favors by burying   what needs to be discussed.
  •  Be timely
    “Don’t wait months after an incident to give feedback,” urges Kay.  “I have had dozens of clients who told me they had no idea their manager was unhappy about their performance or a particular issue until six months, even a year later, when their performance review rolled around. How can they change or improve when they don’t know there’s a problem? They were disheartened, felt angry and helpless at that point. They took it to heart, but in the wrong way.  If you as a manager, want to help them progress, make your feedback timely and specific.”Esrati concurs with this advice.  “Typically, when I received good, constructive criticism it wasn’t back-loaded with any other issues,” states Esrati.  “It was focused on a specific item.”  Moreover, Esrati add that the feedback conversation should be in person, “and it should be expected, not a surprise.”
  •  Focus on follow-up
    Kay notes that it is important for executives to “keep your focus on helping someone be more effective rather than trying to make them feel OK. Yes, you want to take care of and preserve the relationship. But if you have a relationship, that doesn’t mean you can’t discuss difficult issues.“Don’t forget that at the moment you’re giving feedback, it doesn’t end there,” states Kay.  “There’s follow-up to check in, see how things are going and brainstorm about better ways to do things. So create a plan together that focuses on the specific change they are trying to make and set up future meetings to monitor progress. All of this helps the person know you care and really want to help them improve and progress.”

Can Criticism Create a Healthy Workplace Culture? 

The type of criticism that can create a healthy workplace culture is “straightforward and precise feedback,” according to Kay.  She provides this example of what can happen when straightforward and exact feedback is not provided:  I had another client who was a senior executive who wanted badly for everyone to like her. So she would be very indirect about giving feedback and telling people what she needed. If something wasn’t handled right, she’d try to do or fix everything herself. She was overwhelmed and finally when things blew up, she’d have a meltdown. Everyone was afraid of her and would stay away. This was not a healthy workplace culture.

During the feedback conversation, executives should, as Kay says, “Help the person understand how he or she can improve, make your comments helpful, not harsh, and help the person participate in the solution or the new way of thinking about a problem, issue or behavior. This opens up their problem solving thinking. And instead of feeling judged, demeaned or fearful they feel supported. This is healthy.”

 Flickr photo of President Obama and Hillary Clinton via White House Flickr Page

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1 comments
Allan V
Allan V

My experience is that we naturally go into a feedback session with a very biased point of view. I've had to learn to dial it back and tread lightly when engaging the person I'm providing feedback to until I'm sure I've got my facts straight and am seeing things from their point of view.

It's very easy to rub someone the wrong way and have them hold something against you when you have a fixed perspective. As we build trust however, delivering feedback only gets easier and easier.