In every job it is important to provide others with constructive feedback. Whether it's your direct report, a boss, a co-worker or a fellow team member on a project, constructive feedback can be very useful for enhancing relationships and performance.
Most people do not have much trouble when providing positive feedback and are often happy to let people know they have good news; however, providing negative or constructive feedback to a person is a much more daunting task.
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For some people, providing negative feedback is so distasteful they avoid it completely. As a result, the issues don't get resolved and performance does not improve. Why do they avoid providing such feedback? Many people say they don't feel comfortable providing this type of feedback or they say they have never received training on how to deliver it.
So here are tips for providing constructive feedback to make it less stressful for both parties involved:
First, we have to remember what the purpose for constructive feedback is. Generally, it is given to enhance someone's performance to create better results the next time. Our goal should be to genuinely help a person improve.
Think about the ongoing or long-term relationship you have with someone. This should encourage you to provide the feedback in a caring, sincere manner.
Share the positive before you present the constructive feedback. Generally, people are more receptive to constructive feedback if you also point out what they are going well.
Don't overburden them with feedback. People can't process 10 things they need to work on. Pick the one or two things that are most critical for them to work on and focus on those. You can always come back to other issues once they have made some improvements.
Be specific about behaviors you want them to change. Often, people will make general comments about how a person needs to be a better employee, but this does not tell them anything. What exactly do they need to do differently? Showing up on time, completing tasks on time, answering clients' questions with more empathy, etc. Focus on the behaviors, not the person.
Make sure the items you focus on have actionable aspects. Telling them they need to be a stronger leader doesn't give them much to go on. However, telling them they need to delegate more assignments or allow others to run the sales meetings will give them specific ideas they can act on.
Make sure your tone is not overly harsh or sharp. The style in which you deliver the message can be more important than the actual message itself.
Choose the best time and place to provide the feedback. Many people have told me they received constructive feedback from their bosses or co-workers at a social function or in front of a group of people. This can be very demeaning. Instead, use a private setting to provide feedback and make sure you are in the right frame of mind (i.e., level-headed and calm, not tired or angry).
Focus on the person. Make eye contact and don't multitask (answer phone calls, do other work, allow interruptions, etc.). Multitasking or spending only a few minutes to explain a person's major flaw at work will result in your employees not receiving your message in the right spirit.
Before providing advice, ask them if they want it. I tell the executives I coach that we are often great at providing advice (whether it is wanted or not). What we need to work on is learning how to use reflecting comments (paraphrasing back what they have said) and probing comments (asking questions to better understand their point of view). Before charging in with your advice, you might say, "I have some ideas for what you might do to become a stronger leader, would you like to hear them?" Then, respect their decision.
When providing feedback, don't highlight how another employee is much better at something. This seems like common sense, but it is amazing to me how often this is done in organizations. When telling Tom he needs to work on something, mentioning that Pete does it a lot better sets up employee rivalries that can undermine team collaboration. Think back to when a parent told you about one of your faults and how your sister or brother did it so much better. No one wants to hear the message in this fashion. You can, however, ask them if they know anyone who does the task really well, and how they might learn from them.
Constructive feedback is so important for all of us to receive in order to improve. If people knew how and when to give this feedback, we might reap the benefits of the message.
• Joyce E.A. Russell is the director of the Executive Coaching and Leadership Development Program at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business. She is a licensed industrial and organizational psychologist and has more than 25 years of experience coaching executives and consulting on leadership and career management.