Giving helpful feedback is an art and a science and it can be learned. Perhaps the most important lesson about giving feedback is that one size does not fit all. Rather, giving feedback is a dynamic process that depends on the skill level of the recipient, the relationship between giver and receiver, and even when, where and how the feedback is given. If this sounds a bit complicated, take comfort. There are just a few ingredients for a feedback process that fosters engagement and developmental growth, and with practice it will become second nature.
Step 1: Pause and think
Micromanagement leads to poor engagement, productivity, and retention. Before offering criticism it is important to consider whether it is useful and necessary, or superfluous and demoralizing. Pause to consider whether the behavior in question impacts job effectiveness. If the behavior simply reflects a difference in working style or personality, pointing it out probably won’t build positive rapport or lead to behavioral change. Likewise, controlling minutiae leaves employees feeling powerless and disrespected and can significantly reduce productivity. Good leaders understand that people flourish when they are given a healthy dose of autonomy and a safe environment to make decisions and mistakes.
Step 2: Bottom line it
Most of us have received the compliment sandwich, where criticism is wedged between two positive comments. As well-intentioned as this approach may be, it can leave employees wishing they had just been served “the meat.” In periodic performance reviews, reserving distinct parts of the conversation for key accomplishments and areas for development helps prevent employees from bracing for criticism after each positive comment. When constructive feedback needs to be shared in a routine one-on-one, it can be tempting to save it for last but getting right to it at the beginning will allow time for coaching around how to handle similar situations in the future. It is also relevant to note that accolades are also critical to driving performance and research shows that people need positive reinforcement in high doses to perform well. The key is to make sure positive feedback is genuine and not used simply to deflect attention from an uncomfortable conversation.
Step 3: Tailor it
A junior employee needs a different degree and type of feedback than a seasoned pro. Likewise, an overachiever who is generally accustomed to receiving praise may find any criticism crushing or threatening. To maximize positive rapport and performance, consider the whole individual (tenure, past performance, personality) and tailor feedback conversations accordingly. This means taking the time to learn about the whole person and determine which type of communication resonates best. For an employee with demonstrated insight into their performance, one way to start a conversation about a misstep would be to ask a question like “how do you think that went?” or “what would you do differently next time?” rather than offering feedback from the start. A newer employee may need to be told exactly what went wrong and coached through how to handle similar situations in the future. Those with a thinner skin may need to be reassured that constructive criticism is designed to foster their growth and reminded that receptivity to feedback is a valuable asset (hearing a manager share a humbling piece of feedback they received could be helpful here.) Of course, it is not just what is said but how it is delivered, which means creating an environment where employees believe their manager is a trusted ally.
Step 4: Time it
We all need to be in a physical and emotional place to receive or deliver feedback well, whether at work or at home. When emotions are running high, a brief cooling off period will allow everyone to speak more clearly and listen more calmly. That said, it is also crucial to deliver feedback while the details are fresh so that there is less potential for a dispute over the sequence of events. Prompt, agile feedback also helps ensure that employees are given the opportunity to learn and recover from missteps rather than waiting until a performance review cycle to discover that they are missing expectations. To create a more fluid process, develop an open and trusting relationship where developmental opportunities are discussed on an ongoing basis and where employees feel safe surfacing challenges and asking for support.
Step 5: Deliver it with care
A face-to-face conversation of some kind (live or via video chat if necessary) allows for better control of tone and nuance and is especially beneficial for more serious conversations.
Other considerations for more sensitive exchanges include allowing plenty of time for questions and discussion and in ensuring a private place to talk. In cases where an employee is being placed on a performance improvement plan or is facing termination, having a live conversation first and then documenting everything in email or a feedback tool helps ensure the employee is fully aware of expectations and consequences if they are not met.
Unfortunately some criticism will not be received with open arms no matter how much effort and good will is expended. Certainly hiring people who demonstrate resiliency and receptivity to feedback is one way to hedge against issues down the road. Yet with practice and mutual respect, any manager and employee can have more comfortable and productive conversations about performance.