How to give feedback to your team (and keep it constructive)

Giving praise is easy. Constructive criticism...not so much

Every team needs feedback from time-to-time. But providing your staff with worthwhile feedback is no simple thing—there’s more to it than a well-timed pat on the back or a quick suggestion on how to do something more effectively.

And unfortunately, most employees enjoy receiving feedback almost as much as managers enjoy giving it. It’s understandable: especially when you stop to consider that our brains view criticism as a legitimate threat to our survival.

Easy rules for more effective feedback

So it’s no surprise that many managers dread doing feedback-intensive activities like quarterly performance reviews.

Doling out the positive is one thing, but laying down constructive critiques is a totally different animal.

Use these painless, easy-to-implement tips to offer useful observations, evaluations and necessary criticism to your employees and tame that feedback beast, once and for all.

1. Ask questions (and permission)

Lead with questions. But keep them open-ended and avoid leading questions. Give the person receiving the feedback a chance to tell their side of the story before you offer comments.

Questions like ‘how do you think you’re doing at x?’ can provide valuable insights into how the employee feels about what’s going on and allow them to take ownership of what they’re delivering (or not delivering).

Another way to give your team members agency in the feedback process is to ask permission—this one is endorsed by Industry references like Psychology Today, Fast Company, and Forbes. Probably because, as psychologist, Peter Gray says, ‘it’s human nature not to want negative unsolicited advice.’

So by simply asking if you can offer an employee some feedback or advice, you’re giving them a chance to engage—and a vote and voice in the whole process. Criticism is always hard to accept, but you might be surprised at just how much better it’s received when it’s been invited.

@nikarthur via Unsplash

2. Give feedback often

Too often, people put off comments and critiques until too late. If an employee is doing something well—let them know straight away so they can keep on keeping on. If they’re messing something up, you should also communicate what needs to change in the moment or ASAP.

Because when quarterly reviews roll around, it might be too late to fix what needs fixing—or worse still, a lack of positive reinforcement might break what’s actually working.

Another reason to give feedback more often? Authentic, positive feedback delivered regularly throughout the year helps build what executive coach Loren Margolis calls an 'emotional bank' of trust and positive regard so that employees are willing to listen and make changes as needed.

3. Make it one-to-one

Generally speaking, feedback shouldn’t be delivered in a group setting (embarrassing!), or in writing (too cold). And this is true of positive feedback, too—some members of your staff won’t welcome being the centre of attention for any reason.

Besides, a private meeting gives the other person a chance to let you know why they think whatever worked, worked so well. In a study by researchers at Edinburgh Napier University, students and teachers found one-to-one, face-to-face dialogue to be more human, constructive and useful than written feedback.

Which makes sense—ensuring that the situation is as comfortable as possible makes it easier to accept the compliment or critique in question—and more importantly, to know how to approach projects moving forward.

Finally, keep in mind that there are a few exceptions to this rule. If the issue at hand involves most of your team or the feedback is from other team members, you might want to make an exception and include everyone that’s involved. Why? Per the Harvard Business Review, for feedback to be useful, the person receiving it needs to be able to ask questions.

Besides, keeping the source of the feedback secret is likely to cause mistrust between team members, which isn’t exactly a desirable outcome, either.

4. Keep comments specific and actionable

Whether your feedback is positive or negative, it should always, always, always be specific. While we’re not opposed to an occasional ‘well done’ or ‘x behaviour has got to stop’ in a pinch, the more exact feedback is, the more useful it becomes. What exactly worked so well and why? What is damaging to the team and why? Your employees are more likely to respond to your feedback when it’s specific and includes reasons why.

But your feedback shouldn’t just be specific; it should also be task-centric. A critique or compliment is only as useful as you make it. Feedback can also give instruction. Don’t stop at, ‘great presentation on wildflowers!’ keep going with something along the lines of ‘and that’s why we’d like you to help Alexis with her PowerPoint about seeds.’

5. Stay positive

Recent research from the University of Chicago suggests that people learn more from success-based motivation techniques than those based on failures. Per lead researcher Lauren Eskreis-Winkler, cited in Forbes, failure feedback can undermine learning motivation because it’s ‘ego-threatening’ and causes people to ‘tune out.’

And if you must hand out ‘negative’ feedback, try framing your suggestion as something the person in question can do even better. This is a great way to make it easier for the other person to consider your comment without getting defensive.

And remember to focus on what your employees do (behaviours), not on what they’re like (their personalities or qualities). For example, don’t tell an employee that they’re ‘too introverted’ instead, ask them to share their ideas more.

Finally, don’t go overboard with the compliments, either. According to research on the effects of praise on children’s motivation published in the American Psychological Association’s Psychological Bulletin, insincere praise may do more harm than good and convey lower expectations (not precisely what we’re aiming for, in the end).

How do you approach giving employees feedback? Let us know at foundations@koahealth.com.