"I'd like to provide some feedback..."

Did that phrase alone send a shiver down your spine? We can’t blame you—that introduction typically prefaces hard news or some sort of constructive criticism. And, whether you’re on the giving end or receiving end, we all know that tough feedback is never really all that fun.

That doesn’t change the fact that, as a manager, constructive criticism is a crucial part of how you support, encourage, and develop your team. We’re sorry — ultimately, there’s no avoiding those dreaded conversations.

But while you can’t do away with them altogether, there are a few tactics you can put into place to improve how you deliver that tough feedback—so that you can share that necessary information with as few tears and sweaty palms as possible.

The Importance of Constructive Criticism

There are no ifs, ands, or buts about it—constructive criticism is an absolutely crucial tool for your employees’ growth.

"It's both difficult to convey with expertise and hard for the employees to hear, but there is absolutely no alternative for assisting employees in improving their performance and, thus, furthering the successful functioning of the company," explains Dr. Billie Blair, an organizational psychologist and President and CEO of Change Strategists, Inc., about why constructive criticism is important.

Put simply, your employees don’t know what they don’t know — meaning they can’t change or improve something unless they’re explicitly aware of the fact that it needs work.

However, even with that in mind, many leaders fail to give employees the feedback that they need for a variety of reasons. "It can be tempting for managers to skip or gloss over negative feedback so as not to rock the boat," explains Nick Sanchez, Chief People Officer at Namely.

Additionally, with so many other responsibilities on their plates, managers neglect to prioritize the importance of feedback. “Many of them are too wrapped up in actual work and don't make it a point to lead because they feel too busy,” shares Tess Ausman, Talent Development Manager at LendingTree and owner of leadership consulting company, CLT Leads.

Unfortunately, this approach fails employees. In fact, 65% of them state that they would like more regular feedback from their leaders. And, even further, they don’t cringe at the first sight of constructive criticism like you might assume they do.

One Harvard Business Review study found that employees actually prefer to receive corrective feedback—over praise and positive affirmations.

No one wants to give negative feedback but everyone wants to hear it. Harvard Business Review
Image source: Harvard Business Review

So, maybe those conversations aren’t quite as cringe-worthy for your employees as you originally thought.

How to Offer Constructive Criticism

With that in mind, how can you offer constructive criticism in a way that's, well, constructive? Implement these tips to make those feedback conversations all the more productive.

1. Practice Continuous Feedback

One of the worst things you can do is to save all of your difficult feedback for an employee’s performance review. The conversation will quickly take a nosedive, and the recipient will be left sitting across from your desk slack-jawed and surprised.

A smarter strategy is to have regularly scheduled one-on-one check-ins to provide ongoing feedback.

"Having an ongoing dialogue takes the sting out of negative feedback and shows employees that you’re invested in the full scope of their performance," Sanchez explains.

These regular conversations also help you to exercise some moderation — so you aren’t overwhelming an employee with numerous things to improve at once.

"My best tip is to graze, don’t gorge," says Ausman. "How would you feel after eating a quadruple cheeseburger? When you gorge on feedback, an employee feels the same way: miserable."

Ausman recommends picking one specific behavior and focusing on adjusting that first—rather than telling that team member every single way that his or her performance could potentially improve. It’ll ultimately lead to a more productive conversation and better results.

2. Strike a Balance

While sandwiching and even hiding constructive criticism between pieces of praise can lead to confusion, there’s nothing wrong with balancing your tough feedback with some recognition and commendation.

“The information provided to employees needs to be as balanced as one can manage,” explains Dr. Blair. “That is, naming some of the positive aspects of the employee’s performance, as well as areas of performance—with specific examples—where attention and improvement must be achieved.”

As cited in this Harvard Business Review article, research is there to confirm the power of positive feedback — particularly when it comes to inspiring and pushing people who are already high achievers.

Only positive feedback can motivate people to continue doing what they’re doing well, and do it with more vigor, determination, and creativity,” the article explains.

Fortunately, making an effort to achieve ongoing feedback will typically take care of this step in turn. You’re far more likely to touch on both positives and negatives when you’re having repeated discussions about performance.

Regular one-on-one meetings are beneficial to all.
Regular one-on-one meetings are beneficial to all.

3. Treat it as a Conversation

Needing to offer constructive criticism can often feel like you’re climbing up on your soapbox and doling out instructions and reprimands. However, it’s important that you buck that perception and instead treat those feedback conversations as what they are: conversations. That means you shouldn’t be doing all of the talking.

“When giving tough feedback, allow the employee a chance to acknowledge and give his or her thoughts about what’s being shared,” Ausman says. This accomplishes a couple of important things:

  • First, it allows you to perceive whether or not the conversation is going to be even more difficult. Does the employee openly disagree with your feedback, or is he or she open to hearing more about what you’ve witnessed?
  • Secondly, you give the employee a chance to feel heard and involved in the feedback process, which is critical for keeping the recipient engaged and preventing the conversation from turning hostile.

How do you train yourself to allow the employee the chance to chime in?

“Rather than expect an immediate response or 'thank you,' count to five to allow the recipient a chance to take in what you have said, after which time you might say something like, 'I’m curious to know what you think or how you feel about what I’ve just said,'" advises Kendra Coleman, Global Leadership and Change Expert.

4. Use an “SBI” Framework

Coleman swears by the SBI model for constructive feedback; which stands for situation, behavior, and impact. Using this model, your feedback should tie back to each of those three elements.

Coleman offers the following example:

  • Situation: Briefly remind the recipient of the situation (i.e. during yesterday’s meeting).
  • Behavior: Describe the specific behavior that you are providing feedback about (i.e. “You repeatedly interrupted your colleague as she was presenting to the group”).
  • Impact: Explain what you felt or experienced as a result (“It felt like you were trying to take over the presentation, rather than help”).

Presenting constructive criticism in this way not only gives the recipient all of the necessary context, but it also ties your feedback to a specific instance or behavior — which makes it feel like much less of a personal character attack.

Situation Behavior Impact model of feedback
The Situation Behavior Impact model of feedback.

5. Come Prepared With Suggestions

In order for your feedback to be considered truly constructive, it’s important that you come armed not just with problems — but also potential solutions.

“Be prepared to offer a specific suggestion that may help,” says Coleman. “This reinforces that you are being constructive and are committed to their betterment, rather than just being critical.”

After you’ve pointed out a behavior that needs improvement, offer one or two actionable and tactical ways that employee can go about adjusting. With that step, you’ll present yourself as more of a coach. You aren’t aiming to make your employees feel bad. You actually want to see them make forward progress.

6. Practice, Practice, Practice

As with anything, preparation is key. And while it can feel strange to rehearse giving feedback, it can be incredibly helpful for ensuring that you handle those nerve-wracking conversations with poise and professionalism.

Ausman shares: “The managers I work with are often nervous if they’ve never been consistent with giving feedback. The only way to overcome that is to start doing it!”

“While it’s unlikely that the situation will go exactly as rehearsed, experience indicates that going through a number of practice rounds will help you work through what you want to say, and will make it easier to respond during the real conversation,” echoes Coleman.

Don’t be afraid to rehearse those more difficult feedback conversations. You know what they say: practice makes perfect.

Always understand the value of transparency and good communication.
Always understand the value of transparency and good communication.

Over to You

Constructive criticism will likely never be something you look forward to giving your employees. But it’s one of those necessary evils when it comes to leading a team and helping each individual member to achieve their full potential.

All of these tips can help you offer feedback that’s constructive yet won’t make people cry. However, if you remember nothing else, make sure to just always understand the value of transparency and good communication.

“Those are really the key ingredients to constructive employee feedback,” concludes Sanchez. “There are a variety of tools and tactics for delivering constructive criticism, but in the end, honoring the individuality of each employee’s personality and work style is crucial for productive conversations.”

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