Feedback. For most of us, it’s a toss-up on what’s harder – Giving it. Or getting it.
We’ve all had moments when the feedback we’ve received has felt wrong, personal, and weird. It wasn’t helpful – it was just demeaning.
We’ve all had moments when giving feedback has felt like wading through a swamp of miscommunication, misunderstanding, and drama.
And … progress depends on feedback. It’s the way of the world. You try something. You figure out what is and isn’t working. You adjust. You try something else.
Let’s put aside what it takes to receive feedback well – that’s grist for another article.
Rather, let’s acknowledge that one of the great acts of leadership is being able to be brave enough and clear enough to deliver useful feedback.
There are a thousand ways to muck up this essential leadership skill. This article shows how to get better at feedback and, in the process, transform the entire experience into something less anxiety-inducing and dreadful.
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What Is Constructive Feedback?
As outlined in the brilliant book Thanks for the Feedback, constructive feedback falls into one of three categories:
- Appreciation. Sometimes, people want to hear what you love. This is all about expressing authentic gratitude, celebrating milestones, and acknowledging their hard work. Examples of this type of constructive feedback include expressions like:
- “You’re doing great!”
- “I’m grateful for the work you put into this.”
- Coaching. Effective coaching involves helping others generate their own answers instead of teaching them. By asking more questions and slowing down the rush to give advice, you foster autonomy and encourage personal growth. Some examples from my book The Coaching Habit are:
- “What’s the real challenge here for you?”
- “What’s on your mind?”
- Evaluation. This type of feedback assesses someone’s skills, aligns expectations, and clarifies risks and rewards. A classic example is:
- The annual performance review.
Why Is Constructive Feedback Important?
Constructive feedback is vital to unlocking greatness – yours, theirs, and your company’s.
Think about it. Encouraging comments can make all the difference when someone is learning something new, and evaluative feedback can sharpen focus and improve performance.
In fact, one study conducted by the Harvard Business Review found that workplace engagement suffered when leaders were unable to deliver effective feedback.
On top of that, a Zenger Folkman survey found that 92% of employees said, “Negative (redirecting) feedback. if delivered appropriately, is effective at improving performance.” And 72% said they thought their performance would improve if they received corrective feedback from their managers. More than that, they considered it helpful to their careers.
Clearly, having another person’s perspective and ideas can be incredibly valuable, and many employees want the feedback you so badly don’t want to give.
So, what are we so afraid of?
In a word – criticism.
The Difference Between Constructive Feedback and Criticism
So often, workplace feedback is just criticism in disguise.
Most of us have had the unpleasant experience of being given the ‘gift’ of feedback, only to get stung. Instead of being helpful, the person’s comments are loaded with biases, advice, and subjective feelings. To sum it up, reader – it sucks.
It feels like an attack, with an unpleasant undertone of “my perspective is superior to yours.” This sort of criticism is demotivating, demoralizing, and depressing.
But constructive feedback is a different kettle of fish. Delivered well, it can motivate someone, inspire, and uplift them. In fact, feedback often holds the key to unlocking the best in the people around us and enabling them to do great work.
The secret is learning how to give it. I’d say there’s room (maybe even an entire floor) for improvement on how most feedback gets delivered. And if you can master it, you’ll be known as the person who makes those around you both successful and happy.
So how do you deliver it? Let me show you in the next section:
How to Give Constructive Feedback: 9 Ways
In a few simple steps, you can change both the way you deliver feedback and how employees receive your feedback.
Here’s how to get started:
1. Understand How to Work Together
Every individual requires a unique balance between psychological bravery and psychological safety to thrive at work.
Some people will relish being pushed and provoked through evaluative feedback, while others prefer if you lean more towards appreciation.
To discover what works best for each member of your team, you want to gain clarity on the style of feedback they prefer.
The most effective way to do this is through what I call the Keystone Conversation – a discussion with the other person to learn about their working preferences and how to collaborate in a way that enables both of you to be at your best.
You can learn more about how to have the Keystone Conversation in my latest book, How to Work With (Almost) Anyone, but here are a few simple questions to get you started:
- What does it look like when you’re working at your best?
- What feedback tends to be most helpful to you?
- How do you prefer it to be expressed?
2. Give Feedback That Speaks to the Human, Not Just the Task
Before you give anyone feedback, it’s wise to remember the human behind the work.
To put this into practice, I recommend using Martin Buber’s I-It-I-Thou model, which explores the nature of our relationships with others.
In an “I-it” relationship, you see the person in front of you as a thing – a cog in a machine. The relationship is transactional, and you lose your sense of their humanity. As a result, your feedback probably lands all wrong. It feels unempathetic, cutting, and disheartening.
By contrast, “I-thou” relationships enable you to think bigger and see the people you work with in their wholeness. It helps you understand that they’re complex, wonderful, messy, lovable human beings. You assume positive intent. You care about their growth. You push them to the edge of who they can be.
Already, you can see how approaching feedback with an “I-thou” mindset helps you to communicate better.
When you remember that people are trying their best, you can better connect with the human across the table, leading to more open, authentic, and psychologically safe feedback meetings.
3. Bring Them One Up
In his book, Humble Inquiry, Edgar Schein talks about the idea of being “one up” or “one down” relative to a person you’re interacting with. When you “one-down” another person, they have a visceral, neurological response and go into fight-or-flight mode.
Here, they’re on the defense, the world looks more black and white, and any chances of higher thinking vanish. Your feedback will go in one ear and out the other, and your relationship risks taking a hit.
Luckily, engaging with others to give feedback doesn’t have to invoke a fight-or-flight response. You just need to learn how to “one-up” the other person.
One easy way to do this is to ask permission and check in with them before diving in to give your feedback. For example, you could say: “I’ve got some thoughts bubbling in my head about what’s going on. What would be useful for you?”
4. Empower Them to Save Face
Another way to “one-up” the other person is to offer feedback in a way that allows both of you to back away from it if it’s not useful.
Of course, this depends on the type of feedback you’re going to give. If you really need the other person to do something or it’s their performance review, then this approach won’t work. However, if you’re merely offering a suggestion, broaching the conversation with humility can do a world of good.
You could say: “Look, this is just me shooting from the hip, and I may be totally wrong, but let me lay this out, and let’s see what we think about it.”
If they disagree, this lead-in means you’re not forced to defend what you’ve suggested, and they’re not forced to accept it. You both get to save face.
Of course, empowering others in this way isn’t always easy. There’s an inherent comfort in being “one up”.
When you’re the one providing feedback, you hold the power to orchestrate the conversation’s trajectory. You get to relish being the intelligent contributor to the dialogue.
On the other hand, bringing the other person “one up” involves a subtle blow to your ego.
Effectively, you’ve given up status, rank, certainty, control, and power by putting the other person ahead of your own level of comfort. While it’s self-effacing to do, it’s exactly how to make your feedback land positively and nurture a more self-sufficient, effective team.
5. Practice Nonviolent Communication
Feedback often goes wrong because we share our opinions and feelings about another person’s performance, and mistakenly believe that our subjective thoughts are facts.
I use a simple model to prevent me from doing this, which derives from something called non-violent communication, created by Marshall Rosenberg.
With non-violent communication, Rosenberg proposes that communication has four different elements:
- Data. The facts. The things that you can actually point to and say this is true.
- Feelings. How you feel about the situation. I work with five core feelings because some of them rhyme: mad, sad, glad, ashamed, and afraid.
- Judgment. Your opinions about the other person, yourself, and the situation at hand.
- What you want and need. The request you want to make as part of the conversation.
In any feedback scenario, it’s useful to separate the data and what you want from your judgments and feelings about the situation. Once the cloud of opinion clears up, the actual data will be way easier to see – and your feedback will be much more valuable, concise, and objective.
6. Pick the Domino Further up the Line
When you start thinking about what you want from the other person, you might come up with a list of 20 items you’d like to discuss.
But, actually, when you give people a list with a whole bunch of recommendations, your feedback can feel impossible, overwhelming, and insulting.
That’s why it’s much better to do what Tim Ferris calls picking the domino further up the line.
Instead of throwing every single thing you want at the other person, ask yourself: “What’s the least amount of feedback I could give that would be the most useful?”
This is about understanding the most fundamental behavior change you’d like to see in the other person that would positively impact everything down the line.
One small action now, a whole lot of positive effects later.
7. Lead Into Coaching
If you’ve been following me for a while, you know I’m on a mission to unweird coaching.
Coaching employees can and should be an informal, everyday act that takes 10 minutes or less – and feedback is often the perfect doorway into it.
So, after you’ve shared the data and what you want from the other person, don’t stop there. Lean into coaching as a way to support the person further.
My favorite question to ask is this: “What was most useful for you?”
You see, people don’t really learn when you tell them what to do – they learn when they reflect on what happened. By asking this question, not only do you make it more likely for your feedback to stick, but you also encourage your employees to find value in the conversation. This leaves them feeling that the interaction was ultimately helpful.
8. Lay Out the Prizes and Punishments
When you ask for what you want from someone, you’ve got to become aware that the answer they give might be a flat-out no. After all, you’re in an adult-to-adult relationship, and the other person is well within their right to disagree with you.
If and when they do, it’s helpful for you to be able to articulate the prizes and punishments of saying yes and saying no.
So, putting that into practice, you could say: “This is what I want you to do. If you do that, this happens. If you don’t do that, this is what happens.”
By bringing clarity to the conversation, you help the other person to really understand the options and associated consequences, so they can make a more informed choice.
9. Be Generous With Support and Encouragement
If you subscribe to my newsletter, you might have noticed that I always sign off by saying: “You’re awesome, and you’re doing great.”
I’m always amazed by just how many appreciative emails I receive from people saying: “Thank you.” or “This is what I needed to hear today.”
And that’s exactly why I say it. All humans want to know we’re doing a good job and making progress on the stuff that matters. In her book The Progress Principle, Teresa Amabile found that people’s happiness at work directly correlates with their sense of achievement.
So, going back to the three types of feedback, make sure to be generous with appreciation. Assume positive intent, recognize the small wins, and give credit where credit is due. When you do this, your people will have more zest and feel more motivated – and their output will skyrocket.
Start Motivating and Inspiring Your People
Even though feedback is a scary word, getting it right is crucial to being an effective manager and bringing out the best in your people.
If you can remember to see the human behind the task, be generous with praise, and focus on the facts instead of your judgments, you’ll be well on your way to mastering the art of feedback.
If you’d like to learn more about building more successful and more enjoyable working relationships, check out my new book, How To Work With (Almost) Anyone.