Ongoing constructive feedback is essential for letting employees know how they're performing and what's expected of them. David Jones, Senior Managing Director at Robert Half, explains how to do it right.
One of the main responsibilities of a manager is providing feedback that supports their staff’s learning and development. Just as important is being able to provide this feedback on an ongoing basis – not just when the employee's annual performance review comes around. Constructive feedback is especially vital when there are issues that require staff to improve on mistakes or shortcomings, without stirring up negative feelings.
Here are some tips on how to give feedback that helps employees recognise and avoid their mistakes, and inspires them to achieve their full potential.
Be problem-focused and specific
As well as telling the employee what they need to do better, tell them why. For example, starting the conversation with “You need to be getting into the office earlier” assumes that they know why punctuality is so important. Be clear about the actual problem at hand (e.g. you don't want to keep your customers waiting), and structure your feedback around it.
Also, don't always assume that the employee has all the background information they need. If necessary, tell them how the situation affects you and the rest of the business. The more specific you can make your feedback, the more actionable it will be.
Talk about the situation, not the individual
By its very nature, constructive feedback focuses on outcomes and impartial observations rather than the employee's personal attributes. “Your presentation put a lot of people to sleep” is likely to be taken as an attack that is motivated by personal feelings rather than any objective facts. By discussing the situation itself rather than your personal opinion about it, you are showing that you are most concerned about fixing the problem at hand, not the employee's own personality.
Give praise where it's due
Weaving some positives among the negatives can be a good way to reassure employees that you haven't lost perspective. For instance: “I think you did a great job with this account. Sales are up 13% since last quarter.” Then you can start talking about the area that needs improvement: “However, we've had a few customers tell us that response times have increased.” This tells the employee that you're not criticising their overall performance; just that certain aspects of their job need attention. Just be careful not to over-emphasise the positives, as this can make you appear uncertain or insincere.
Be direct but informal
Try not to use technology such as email, text message or the phone to relay your feedback, as this can lead to misinterpretation and make it seem less important than it really is. Find a quiet meeting room where you can have an honest and informal one-on-one chat with the employee. At the same time, try not to beat around the bush; whether it's positive or negative, constructive feedback is most effective when you get straight to the point.
If your tone and manner don't match the context of the feedback itself, you could send out a mixed message that confuses the recipient. If the feedback is positive, let your emotions also indicate that you appreciate their efforts. For negative feedback, a more concerned tone will show that you believe the problem should be taken seriously.
Most importantly, always try to avoid displaying negative emotions such as anger, sarcasm or disappointment, as they are likely to be perceived as personal criticism.
While giving constructive feedback, make sure that staff are given a chance to respond. This shows that you are prepared to listen to their concerns and their interpretation of events. It can also be used as an opportunity for the employee to express their ideas and become part of the solution.
Make it timely
Always try to give positive feedback when the employee's praiseworthy achievement is still fresh in everyone's memory. The same applies to negative feedback – with the exception that if they've done something that makes you feel genuinely bad, it may be wise to wait until you've “cooled off” before taking it up with them. This will help to ensure that your feedback is objective and not coloured by emotion.
The best type of constructive feedback is that which focuses on behaviour, not personality. It is given in a tone and setting that conveys support and respect. Also keep in mind that we all thrive on positive reinforcement, so don't assume that employees will always know when they're performing well – come out and tell them.
Be it positive or negative, providing staff with ongoing constructive feedback is one of the most important and powerful employee development tools at your disposal.