People often ask me for tips on how to give “negative feedback”—which is something that apparently no one enjoys either giving or receiving. Constructive feedback, on the other hand, which helps people grow and improve, is on everyone’s most wanted list. So what’s the difference between negative feedback and constructive feedback? The challenge you face when you give someone this helpful feedback is to speak in a way that allows people to hear and understand your message without causing them to become defensive, resistant, or emotional.
Some people advocate a “rip off the Band-Aid” approach to providing feedback. This approach can be traumatic—it hurts the receiver and causes more avoidance and denial every time it happens.
Other people promote the “feedback sandwich” approach in which you sandwich the negative message between a positive message up front and another positive message at the end of the conversation. This approach feels like manipulation, and recipients learn to discount the positive feedback that begins and ends the exchange—even if it is authentic. The initial positive statement acts as a setup for the negativity of the real message that is to follow.
Here are a number of tips that will help you improve the quality of your constructive feedback conversations—and increase the likelihood that your feedback will produce the desired results;
1. Clarify your “come from.” When you provide constructive feedback, your attitude and thought process must come from a space of help and support. Most people are painfully aware when they have performed poorly, and approaching a person with an attitude of frustration or anger will do more harm than good, both to the person and to the relationship. People instinctively shut down when they are approached with negativity and strong emotion. Approach the conversation clearly from the perspective of helping the individual grow and develop. Your positive approach will set a positive tone for the entire conversation.
2. Identify the facts. To provide clear and helpful feedback about an individual’s performance, you have to know exactly what happened and the consequences that followed from their behavior. If you do not have concrete examples of what a person did, it will be difficult for him or her to know what to improve upon or change. When your feedback is vague, you run the risk of speaking in broad generalities or personal interpretations. No one knows what to do without specifics.
3. Move the person forward. When we provide feedback, we have a tendency to ask questions that force people to defend themselves, such as “Why did you do that?” A far more effective approach is to ask questions that stimulate thinking and help the person move forward into the future: “What would you do differently next time to improve your results?” This question allows the person to look at what they did, learn from the outcome, and think about what they need to change to improve their results.
4. Build accountability. The objective in a feedback conversation is to establish a clear and specific plan to improve performance or change behavior. Having a clear-cut plan in mind before holding the conversation is a good start, but don’t be surprised if you learn something that will change your original plan during the course of the conversation. If the individual finds it difficult to create a plan that will improve their results, you may have to step in and help them build the plan. If you step in, be sure that you explain why you are asking them to follow a particular course of action.
5. Don’t assume anything. We generally assume that we have been understood, or that we understand why someone behaved in a certain way. We also assume that once we have given clear directions, the problem will not occur again. Identify your own assumptions and challenge them by asking yourself or the other person a series of questions. Listen carefully to the answers to those questions, for they will let you know whether or not you have been clearly understood.
6. Assess the quality of your relationship. If the other person knows that you care about them, they will interpret what you say as a reflection of the importance your relationship. Everyone finds it gratifying to know that the people they work for appreciate the contributions they make. If the only time you ever speak to a person is when they have done something wrong, you are missing a huge opportunity. Make time to mention the good things that people do and celebrate their successes. This will improve the quality of your relationship, and also increase their commitment to achieve results.
7. Express your support. People want to know that you have their back. They want to know that they can come to you when they have questions, concerns, or challenges. If you are approachable and continue to reinforce your desire to help them succeed, you will increase the degree of openness and collaboration that is invested in achieving results.
The purpose of feedback is to improve performance and achieve desired results. People want to be successful in what they do, and very few people, if any, intentionally go out of their way to perform poorly. As a leader, manager, parent, or spouse you should recognize that you have a huge impact on how people perform and the satisfaction of that journey. Improving your ability to provide constructive feedback will pay huge dividends.