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Giving and Receiving Feedback

Giving Constructive Feedback

Giving Constructive Feedback

Imagine that you are expecting feedback of some kind, perhaps from your boss or colleague. It may be on a project you have just finished, on your personal efforts to achieve a particularly difficult goal or a more formal appraisal session. As you think about the upcoming feedback, carefully consider how you would feel if you were treated in any one or more of the following ways:

You are:

  • talked at relentlessly?
  • verbally attacked?
  • put down or patronized?
  • talked over or interrupted constantly?
  • told what’s good for you?
  • not given the opportunity to express your views?
  • not given the chance to say how you feel?
  • given advice you neither need nor want?

The list could be a lot longer but the answer is still the same for most people-they would have whole range of negative feelings in response to this treatment including anger, irritation, sadness, frustration, anxiousness, feeling ashamed, bullied, discouraged, judged, resentful and more. Any yet many people have had this experience all too often and usually just tolerate it (willingly or not).

When offering coaching, guidance, steering comments, or just general feedback, all too often a feedback-giver has a one-way communication goal. This is to give the other person the feedback (especially when it has negative components), often as fast as possible and ideally without interruption. In this way, the communication (at least theoretically) is over quickly and the job is done and the goal met. Sadly, the communication may be over quite quickly but the goal (which was to offer feedback to help people to re-focus, get some genuinely valuable input and feel motivated to do as well and perhaps even better in the future etc) will not have been met at all. This is because this kind of feedback is destructive and it typically achieves exactly what it sets out to do-criticize people (lots of “stick” and little or no “carrot”).

So what is constructive feedback and how is it delivered?

There are two main ways in which feedback can be delivered constructively:

  1. The feedback needs to be specific, behavior or issue-focused (rather than an unsubstantiated opinion about or value judgment about the person concerned), based on data or what is observable (rather than assumptions of any kind), and should include specific direction on how to make improvements.
  2. The feedback needs to be delivered in a manner that does not provoke negative emotions (including those mentioned above). This means that the feedback-giver needs to be polite, calm, respectful and use emotional intelligence to read the other person.

In an appraisal type discussion, to take an example, feedback would often be related to performance on individual, team and/or departmental objectives. A constructive feedback statement may therefore be something like:

“As you know, our aim this year is to handle 15% more volume as a team, and we all had to do our part to achieve this. In the first 6 months you have handled 5% less volume than last year-what is going on?”

This is factual feedback, specific to the performance concern, and helps to relate the shortfall to the wider objective (without getting personal or assigning any blame). Describing specific observations helps the other person understand exactly what you mean and accept the feedback as “real” or valid. There are two separate but equally critical methods involved here: being specific, and, focusing on direct observations rather than on opinions or rumors you may have heard.

Very general feedback can often be more confusing than helpful. By being specific, you help the other person identify exactly what your points are. Additionally, it’s important to separate what you have actually observed, from your opinions, or from what others have told you. Opinions (especially ones not backed up by facts) tend to turn people off or make them defensive; rumors may simply be inaccurate. Starting with facts gives you common ground upon which to build.

Your reactions to what you have actually observed can provide very useful information to the other person. Submersed in their own view of the world and thought processes, most people can benefit from seeing themselves from another’s perspective. When you describe their actions or the consequences of the observed behaviors, the other person can better appreciate the impact that his or her actions are having on others and on the organization or team as a whole. However, as much as it may be seen to be beneficial, constructive feedback must be done in a two-way, not one-way conversation. This ensures that the ‘say’ of both parties is respected at all times.

Being constructive in all of your feedback

After you have described your observations specifically and accurately, a constructive feedback-giver offers his or her reactions (in a calm and polite way of course). This means explaining the consequences of the other person’s behavior and how you, as a boss or colleague, feel about it. You may also offer examples of how you and others are affected. For example you might say:

“The plan looks good. Every additional ton of waste reduced contributes to the effective operation-if you can stick to this standard, 3 people on the team will save several hours of time. This is what can happen when we put our heads together to solve a problem.”

Once the feedback-giver has said their piece, allowing the person the chance to react to your feedback builds their self-esteem and shows that you recognize the value of their ideas or suggestions. Getting the other person’s point of view – or making an overture for one – also creates an opportunity to check for any misunderstandings or misinterpretations. When you provide an opportunity for responses and reactions, you learn valuable tips on how things are going, gain a broader perspective, and foster open communication.

Gaining respect in a feedback conversation essentially involves encouraging and allowing a healthy two-way flow and avoiding a number of communication traps or problems that can occur (especially when we slip back into personal comments, blaming or even one-way feedback habits).

To make sure that all of your feedback sessions go well, and are as constructive as possible, consider using the following checklist:

  • Avoid talking at people – find ways to talk with them
  • Don’t ignore people when performance issues come up-maintain a healthy connection at all times
  • Never attack, even if you have been attacked
  • Don’t assume unsubstantiated comments or rumors are true until you have listened properly to the person
  • Avoid put downs or patronizing comments
  • Refrain from the use of profanity
  • Don’t talk over others. Apologize when you do.
  • Avoid telling people what is good for them
  • Allow plenty of opportunities for them to express their views
  • Encourage the other person to tell you how they feel. Ask them from time to time.
  • Hold back on giving advice until you feel they might be ready to hear it. Ask if you’re not sure: “Do you mind if I give you some advice?”
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About Dr. Jon Warner

Dr. Jon Warner is a prolific author, management consultant and executive coach with over 25 years experience. He has an MBA and a PhD in Organizational Psychology. Jon can be reached at OptimalJon@gmail.com

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About the Editor and Primary Author

Jon Warner

Jon Warner is an executive coach and management consultant and in the past has been a CEO in three very different companies. Read more

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