4 steps to give genuinely constructive feedback

September 22, 2021

Megaphone on a wall

Why is feedback important?

Timely and constructive feedback allows us to work on performance, but criticism, however well intended, naturally puts people’s brains in a defensive mindset. In this post we discuss 4 tips on how to give constructive feedback from psychologist and author Adam Grant.

1. Explain why you’re giving the feedback

Recently, a team of psychologists was able to make feedback 40% more effective by prefacing it with just 19 words: “I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know that you can reach them.”

Rather than feeling attacked, now you feel like the person has your back and believes in your future. People are remarkably open to criticism when they believe it’s intended to help them. People will accept being challenged directly if you show that you care personally.

2. Take yourself off a pedestal

Negative feedback can make people feel inferior. If you level the playing field, it’s a lot less threatening: “I’ve benefited a lot from people giving me feedback, and I’m trying to pay that forward.” “I’ve been studying great managers, and I’ve noticed that they spend a lot of time giving feedback. I’m working on doing more of that.” “Now that we’ve been working together for a while, I think it would be great if we gave each other suggestions for how we can be more effective.”

All of these messages send a clear signal: I’m not perfect. I’m trying to get better too.

3. Ask if the person wants feedback

“I noticed a couple of things and wondered if you’re interested in some feedback.”

I’ve opened this way many times, and no one has ever declined. Once people take ownership over the decision to receive feedback, they’re less defensive about it.

4. Have a transparent dialogue, not a manipulative monologue

Imagine that you’re about to give feedback to an employee and you want to be transparent about what you’re trying to accomplish, so you tell them: “I have some negative feedback to give you. I’ll start with some positive feedback to relax you, and then give you the negative feedback, which is the real purpose of our meeting. I’ll end with more positive feedback so you won’t be so disappointed or angry at me when you leave my office.”

It sounds ridiculous! And yet that's what some managers do when they deliver a "feedback sandwich".

Now instead try: “The presentation you gave to the senior leadership team this morning may have created confusion about our strategy. Let me tell you how I’d like to approach this meeting and see if it works for you. I want to start by describing what I saw that raised my concerns and see if you saw the same things. After we agree on what happened, I want to say more about my concerns and see if you share them. Then we can decide what, if anything, we need to do going forward. I’m open to the possibility that I may be missing things or that I contributed the concerns I’m raising. How does that work for you?”

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