Leadership comes with numerous challenges, yet one of the most difficult parts of being a leader is delivering the ‘f’ word – feedback. What is it about delivering feedback (particularly constructive feedback, that is when someone’s performance and/or behaviour are not up to scratch) to your direct reports so daunting?
There could be a number of reasons why we don’t particularly look forward to delivering constructive feedback; essentially, we fear that by telling the other person we are unhappy with their performance/behaviour we risk damage to ourselves, to the other person or to the relationship. Whilst it is impossible to completely control the reaction of the other person, there are a few ways in which you can phrase your feedback to turn a potentially damaging conversation into an opportunity to bring out the best in your team members and strengthen your relationship with them.
I have listed seven qualities of constructive feedback that, from my own experience as a business leader and workplace coach, should be kept in mind when delivering feedback:
Leaders regularly complain to me that they are unable to give their team members feedback because “they take it personally”. When I ask them to repeat the words that they used, I am usually not surprised with their team members’ reaction. Words have enormous power, and when we deliver our feedback in such a way that does not distinguish the person from his/her actions, then the feedback is taken personally. For example, rather than tell a person “we need to talk about your carelessness” try something along the lines of “we need to talk about the errors in your calculation”.
One other reason why people can get their knickers in a twist when receiving feedback is that the feedback is perceived to be unfair. This is generally because the feedback given communicates opinions as facts (for example “no one in his right mind would have done that!”) or because of the use of generalisations (for example “you’re always late with your work” or “you’re never available whenever I need you”). Be as specific as possible and stick to facts; mention what the person did/did not do, said/did not say.
In psychology we talk about the fundamental attribution error, whereby people tend to over-emphasize dispositional, or personality-based explanations for behaviours observed in others while under-emphasizing situational explanations. It is therefore very easy for us when giving constructive feedback to equate the negative impact of the person’s actions/non-action on us with a negative intention on their part; for example, if I am offended by your action, I automatically infer that you must have intended to offend me. To counteract this tendency, express your feelings about the situation in a way that shows ownership of those feelings without quick judgement of the other person’s intent. Try using ‘I’ statements rather than ‘you’ statements such as “I felt offended by what you said to me during the meeting” rather than “you were offensive with your remarks during the meeting”.
It is tempting to minimise the risk of negative fallout of the feedback by sugar-coating or minimising the feedback. Up to a few years ago, people were advocating the use of the ‘feedback sandwich’: first say something positive, then deliver the nasty stuff, but finish off with something positive again. This approach typically confuses the feedback receiver as to the intended outcome of the feedback. By all means, give praise whenever praise is due, but don’t reserve it to be used simply to cushion the ‘blow’ of constructive feedback.
The reason you’re delivering constructive feedback is that someone in your team has fallen short of your expectations and you are requesting a change. Yet, phrasing your request positively is far likelier to get the other person to accede to your request; for example, instead of “please don’t do that I really don’t like it” try “I would much rather you did this rather than that as I prefer it”.
What differentiates feedback from criticism is essentially the intention behind the communication. In delivering feedback, your intention is always to help the other person improve and develop. Your feedback should therefore always include some sort of offer to help, whether this is support, coaching or simply empathising with the other person.
Too often, feedback sessions are a monologue, with the feedback giver doing all the talking. After spelling out the reason for the conversation (remember, just the facts) very simply ask for the other person’s take on the situation. Just like an iceberg, what you see on the surface is never the whole picture.
In addition to the above verbal qualities, I would recommend that any constructive feedback is given in a timely manner, that is as soon as possible after the event or the situation that triggered the feedback. Ideally, feedback should be given whilst everyone can still remember the details of what happened. Nevertheless, you would still need to ensure that you choose the right timing to give feedback; both you and the other person need to be in the right frame of mind for a difficult conversation. Friday afternoon, a few minutes before you both clock off for the weekend, might not be such a great time to deliver feedback.
Finally, do make sure that the feedback is given in person (never via email or text) and in a private setting. Feedback given in public is typically read as an act of humiliation.
Giving constructive feedback may be one of the most difficult conversations you will ever have with your team members. When given skillfully and with the right motive, it could, however, transform your relationship with your team and develop them into high-performing individuals.
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You can get better at giving constructive feedback and dealing with difficult conversations.