- Give employees constructive criticism in the appropriate manner as soon as the opportunity arises.
- Make feedback a dialogue, not a one-way conversation, so you can understand the root of any successes or failures.
- When giving feedback, approach conversations with compassion and understanding, rather than anger and frustration.
- This article is for business owners, managers, and other professionals who want to give and accept more productive and meaningful constructive criticism.
As professionals, we want to do better and be better. Giving and receiving constructive feedback allows us to see our behavior and work from someone else’s perspective. Two people can often view the same situation completely differently and not even realize it.
Not giving necessary feedback, especially after unacceptable behavior, has consequences. Create an action plan to provide critical and beneficial feedback.
In an ELA Conference workshop on this topic, Aisha Blake, Detroit chapter leader of Girl Develop It, identified two types of feedback: positive and constructive. Positive feedback focuses on what we’re doing right; it feels gratifying, and it affirms our work. While constructive feedback might not always be negative, it concentrates on how we can improve what we do.
“[Constructive feedback] is the feedback we all think about,” Blake said. “We want to make this about behaviors.”
It sounds much easier said than done, but remember that feedback isn’t a personal attack – unless, of course, it’s intended to be taken personally.
There’s a difference, Blake said, between evaluation and escalation. “If you feel unsafe, that is something you need to bring to someone, whether it’s HR, your manager or someone in your workplace.”
Follow Blake’s six-step method to provide effective, constructive feedback.
1. Be specific.
The goal of providing constructive feedback is to change a behavior. The other person won’t understand why there is a problem unless you articulate the behavior in detail.
“Keep it focused and actionable, so that there’s a clear path forward,” Blake said.
2. Deliver feedback proactively.
It’s crucial to identify conflicts when they first happen. Otherwise, you’re more likely to hold a grudge, which can manifest in unintentionally snapping at the other person later on.
“You don’t need to see into the future, but you need to make sure things aren’t festering for too long,” Blake said. “So often the problems we have, whether technical or personal … wouldn’t be such a big deal if someone said [something] the first, second, or even fifth time, but the 17th time, we snap.”
3. Take a breath.
When you have to confront problematic behavior, take a step back and let yourself cool off first. “Don’t jump in angry,” Blake said.
Because constructive feedback takes a lot of energy, especially emotional labor, take time to fully process your thoughts. Unless you’re dealing with an urgent situation and need to act immediately, write down how you would describe the behavior and read it out loud to yourself. Make edits as necessary to help prepare yourself for the real face-to-face conversation.
Key takeaway: Stay positive. In the workplace, you often get back the energy you give, and a negative attitude often produces unproductive responses. If you remain encouraging toward your team members, your feedback is more likely to stick.
4. Check your bias.
There are two sides to every story. “Your perception of the issue may not match the other person’s lived experience,” Blake said.
Acknowledging your bias can help, especially if you’re in a position of power based on your race or gender.
“I’ve had people [be] intimidated by the way that I look,” Blake said. For example, in her professional experience, she previously had supervisors make assumptions based on her identity, which prevented both of them from communicating effectively with each other. [Related: Is Subconscious Bias Affecting Your Hiring Decisions?]
5. Invite discussion.
“Making too many assumptions can hold the conversation back,” Blake said.
To combat assumptions, initiate a discussion with the other person. Don’t make the conversation one-sided – hear the other person out. After all, you don’t know what outside stressors they carry every single day.
6. Follow through.
After an appropriate time has passed, evaluate whether the other person’s behavior has changed. If it did, ask yourself how it changed.
If they addressed and improved their behavior, consider thanking them at the appropriate time. If the behavior is still occurring, be prepared to own your experience; don’t invalidate how you feel.
“At the end of the day, what you feel is not wrong, because it exists,” Blake said.
Strive to ingrain both positive and constructive feedback in your office culture to normalize both receiving and providing feedback and to make the process less anxiety-inducing.
Tip: If you want more productive conduct from your team members, display that behavior yourself first. Asking someone to change only goes so far, but modeling the positive habits you expect from others encourages imitation.
When to give constructive feedback
Tactful constructive feedback is as much about timing as content. Poorly handling constructive criticism could cause the other person to disregard all your feedback or cause more disruptive behaviors to emerge. Therefore, consider the best times to give constructive criticism.
- During one-on-one meetings: Addressing a team member’s performance when the person is with their teammates can feel more like public shaming or boasting than feedback. Schedule a one-on-one meeting so you have the chance to consider your words more carefully and have a constructive conversation.
- Shortly after witnessing undesirable behavior: If you’re noticing unproductive behavior from an employee, it’s likely that other employees have noticed as well. This poor conduct can lead to a drop in morale (and perhaps an uptick in employee turnover) if not addressed as soon as possible. To start, wait a day and see if the employee course-corrects on their own – some people just have off days. If not, prompt attention is necessary. Approach the employee with an open mind in case their behavior wasn’t intentional.
- After establishing trust: Fostering an open and honest relationship with your employees is a must before attempting to give them your feedback. Without that bedrock, there’s no way for the other person to know whether your constructive comments have their best interests at heart. For a more productive discourse, open your conversations by recognizing the other person’s abilities and the value to the team.
- When an employee turns in good work: Feedback isn’t just useful for addressing negative behaviors; you can also use it to bolster positive ones. Acknowledge what team members do well to reinforce those behaviors and add more value to the team as they lead by example.
- At the other person’s preference: Giving feedback should be a conversation, not a lecture. Making the other person comfortable can help your feedback come off as friendly rather than antagonistic. Let your colleague pick the time when they’d be most at ease receiving feedback to encourage more positive reactions and better future work.
Isaiah Atkins contributed to the writing and reporting in this article.