Management expert Ken Blanchard once said that “feedback is the breakfast of champions”. What he probably meant is that meaningful feedback can make the difference between mediocrity and greatness. Without quality feedback, employees don’t know how to improve.
But feedback can only help employees improve when it’s constructive. Before we discuss how to give constructive feedback, let’s talk about what that really means.
Constructive feedback aims to build the individual up, rather than break them down. Does that mean always focusing on giving positive feedback? Not at all. What it does mean is that feedback is only constructive when it’s provided with the right approach. When you manage to provide constructive feedback, you’ll see employees grow and flourish.
The Mistakes That Result in Ineffective Feedback
Giving and receiving feedback in the workplace isn’t quite as easy as it seems. Fragile egos, miscommunication, and poor timing are just some of the challenges of giving feedback. These challenges can easily stand in the way of giving and receiving feedback that supports employees’ growth.
- Making feedback too personal
- Making feedback too impersonal
- “Sandwich-ing” negative feedback
- Playing armchair psychologist
- Postponing feedback
- Setting vague expectations
1. Making feedback too personal
Too often, managers approach problems with an employee’s performance as being problems with the employee themselves, rather than skill or process issues. For example, a manager might say “you handled that meeting with Adam poorly, your immaturity made our department look incompetent”. Could you blame the employee for being insulted in this situation?
Instead, managers should focus on the actions and their consequences, rather than the person. Constructive negative feedback is as objective as possible and focuses on corrective action.
For example, the manager in the above example could rather say “it’s clear that you were upset by what Adam said in the meeting. While I understand you’re passionate about the project, it’s important that we keep our communication with other departments professional if we want them to take our opinions seriously.
2. Making feedback too impersonal
In the above example of providing feedback to employees, we see that personal attacks have no place in constructive feedback. Unfortunately, though, some managers tend to overcorrect to avoid personal accusations.
Sometimes managers will provide feedback for the team, instead of individuals. The manager may tell the sales team “we underperformed by 25% this month. The team needs to improve its negotiation skills if we’re going to meet our quarterly target”.
What are individual employees supposed to do with this feedback? Some of them may identify with the need to improve negotiation skills, but other employees won’t, and won’t know how to improve their performance.
Individual performance influences team performance, but improvements can only happen at the individual level. Any guidelines about how to give constructive feedback will emphasize this idea: start with the individual.
Managers need to understand the factors influencing each employee’s performance and identify specific measures for improvement. This can be time-consuming and requires experienced managers, but it’s well worth it in the end!
3. “Sandwich-ing” negative feedback
Many managers outright avoid negative feedback. Instead, they adopt the “sandwich” method. This relies on placing negative feedback between positive feedback. The manager might say something like “the team loves your energy and bubbly personality. Some team members find that you talk too much at your desk and that’s distracting. But overall, we just love having you around”.
Now, clearly, this manager has tried to cushion the blow. But it’s possible to cushion the blow so much that the only feedback the employee hears is the positive type. Sugar coating a bitter pill is only effective if the employee understands that they’re receiving constructive negative feedback, too. Otherwise, you may as well be handing them M&Ms.
So, how do you avoid the sandwich trap without being unkind? Clarity is kindness. Start with the negative feedback, keep it constructive, and provide praise separately. For example, the manager should keep “some employees find you talking at your desk distracting” and “your bubbly personality contributes to our team” as separate points of discussion.
4. Playing armchair psychologist
Some of the most uncomfortable examples of providing feedback to employees involve the manager using their insight into the employee to guess the motives behind their behavior.
It’s all too tempting to tell an employee who isn’t delivering on deadline that you think they’re behind “because of issues at home”. Now, this doesn’t mean that managers should ignore their insights into employee performance. However, they should be careful of assuming that their insights tell the whole story.
No one likes to feel like people are making assumptions about them. Employees might even be deeply insulted by a manager’s intrusion into their personal issues.
That’s why one of our feedback suggestions for managers is to ask, rather than assume. If an employee has missed a few deadlines, their manager should take them aside and say “you’ve missed a number of deadlines lately, what do you think is causing this? Let’s look at how we can get you back on track”.
5. Postponing feedback
What’s worse than receiving negative feedback? Receiving feedback so long after the fact that you can’t do anything to improve the situation. One of the toughest challenges of giving feedback is getting the timing right.
In an effort to keep things professional, many managers wait for performance reviews to provide employees with any constructive feedback. This means that if there’s an issue in January, they could wait until the end of the quarter (March) to address it.
This doesn’t work for a couple of reasons. Firstly, managers can become fed up with an employee who isn’t changing their behavior, forgetting that they haven’t even discussed the behavior with them yet. Secondly, it means that performance reviews can be too focused on problems that occurred months ago, and are all but forgotten.
So, take super-entrepreneur Tim Fargo’s advice that “mistakes should be examined, learned from, and discarded; not dwelled upon and stored”. Address issues as they arise. Build regular opportunities for feedback into everyone’s schedule, such as bi-weekly one-on-ones. Regular feedback will also give employees practice on receiving constructive feedback, so it’s a no-brainer.
6. Setting vague expectations
Knowing if both sides are on the same page is another one of the core challenges of giving feedback.
Feedback is only constructive if it’s actionable, specific, and clear. So, don’t say “we need to see you become more diligent in your work”. Being more diligent is great in theory, but how exactly do you improve diligence, a personal quality? Rather say “you need to pay closer attention to detail in your assignments”. Provide examples where the employee has not behaved with attention to detail. Both sides need to understand exactly what incorrect behavior looks like, and what an improvement would look like.
Setting improvement KPIs is one way to make your expectations clear, and track employee progress. For example, a copywriter can work toward a goal of keeping typos under five for every 1000 words.
Finally, make sure that the consequences for not improving are clear. Let’s say that the copywriter above doesn’t improve their attention to detail. Do they know what to expect? Explain the practical actions that the organization will need to take, without making threats.
Put These Feedback Tips into Action
Yes, champions eat feedback for breakfast. But champions also know that providing good feedback requires skill and sensitivity.
Now you know how to give constructive feedback at the right time, with the right approach and clear expectations. Apply the tips in this article, avoid performance feedback errors, and expect to see employee performance and employee-manager relationships positively transform.
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