The ability to provide honest feedback is one of the most important leadership skills a manager can possess. When done correctly, it can empower the employee to leverage their strengths, give them the confidence to improve on their weaknesses, and ultimately give them the opportunity to develop, improve, and meet their goals.
The problem, however, is that many managers shy away from giving negative feedback. They often worry that despite their best of intentions, the employee will take their feedback as criticism, and become defensive. Confrontational even.
But this doesn’t have to be the case. Negative feedback doesn’t have to mean criticism.
Not when it’s provided as constructive feedback.
Throughout this article, we’ll outline the steps your managers can take to provide it, and provide examples of what to say (and what not to say) when providing negative feedback.
The importance of providing constructive feedback
Before anything else, it’s important to point out that 82% of employees want feedback, good or bad. Managers that shy away from providing it aren’t doing anyone any favours. After all, it doesn’t enable the employee to learn and develop, and it prevents teams from performing at the top of their game.
Well-constructed feedback is also incredibly important for maintaining psychological safety, but it ultimately comes down to the way in which the feedback is delivered. While we’ll dive into some best practices below, it is crucial that your managers are mindful of the fact that poorly delivered feedback can destroy psychologically safe teams.
This is why good feedback must be:
- Well intended
- Combined with positive encouragement
- Kept private
- Part of a conversation, ideally a continuous performance discussion, to ensure it is timely
Best practices for providing constructive feedback
Now that we’ve covered the importance of providing constructive feedback, let’s look at some of the best practices on how managers can actually deliver it.
1. Explain why you're providing feedback
When providing feedback, managers should let their employees know that they strongly believe they can meet their high expectations. In fact, by prefacing negative feedback with a statement such as “I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectation and I know that you can reach them”, managers can improve the effectiveness of their feedback by as much as 40%.
Rather than feeling attacked, these employees will instead feel as though their manager not only has their back, but that they are rooting for them to improve. People are open to criticism when they believe it’s intended to help them.
2. Take yourself off a pedestal
Often, the delivery of negative feedback can leave recipients feeling inferior. To avoid this, managers must level the playing field.
To do this, they should consider using statements such as:
- “I’ve personally benefited a huge amount 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.”
Each of these messages send a clear signal: I’m not perfect, but I’m trying to get better as well.
3. Ensure feedback is specific
For feedback to be effective, it needs to be abundantly clear. It also needs to form the basis of a two-way conversation.
Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case. Too often, managers go in headfirst with a full-blown monologue that ends up overwhelming and confusing their direct reports, not to mention leaving them filled with anxiety.
So, what is a worst-case example of this?
“Unfortunately, I have some negative feedback to give you. A few things have come to my attention that I’d like to raise with you, which is why I’ve arranged this meeting. I do also have some positive feedback to share with you though, so it’s not all bad”.
Often, the reason for this approach to giving negative feedback is simply because the manager is simply nervous themselves, and unprepared on how to deliver it in a better way.
This is why it’s so important that managers are coached to provide constructive feedback. Something like:
“The presentation you gave to the senior leadership team this morning may have created confusion about our strategy. I think it might help you if I describe what I saw that raised some concerns, and then I’d like to understand if you feel the same way. We can then decide what, if anything, we need to work on going forward. I’m open to the possibility that I may be missing things, or that I may have contributed to the concerns I’m raising. How does that work for you?”
With this approach, managers will get a whole lot further.
4. Ensure feedback is actionable
Another major issue with employee feedback is that it isn’t always meaningful, nor is it actionable. At least, that’s the opinion of 83% of millennials – a generation that make up a significant amount of your workforce.
The good news is that managers can tackle this by working together with their employee to come up with a plan that outlines steps that can be taken. Steps that will help them to improve their performance.
5. Provide constructive feedback as part of continuous performance management discussions
Feedback shouldn’t just be a one-time thing. More specifically, managers shouldn’t be providing feedback only when someone isn’t performing at the top of their game.
Instead, regular performance discussions should form part of their one-to-ones with direct reports, and they should use these meetings as an opportunity to discuss goal progress and obstacles.
When done well, one-to-ones not only enable continuous feedback loops, but they also improve accountability, and can strengthen manager-employee relationships. This is, however, often only achieved in companies that have adopted a coaching culture.
Moreover, it’s often only achieved in companies that have introduced continuous performance management approaches.
Constructive feedback example
So, what does constructive feedback look (or rather sound) like?
In the example below, we've included an example of what a manager could say to a team member that regularly talks over their colleagues in meetings.
"I genuinely love how passionate you are about this project and it's great that you're brimming with ideas, but I've noticed that on a few occasions you've spoken over people. As an example, you spoke over both Alice and Dave in the meeting earlier, which meant that they weren't able to effectively share their own thoughts and ideas. Did you notice yourself doing this?
You have the potential to be a great leader and you're already displaying some great leadership qualities, such as being organized, influential and proactive. What I'd really like to see going forward though is you giving others the time to contribute in these meetings, and really listening to their suggestions. This will be crucial for your own career development, but will also ensure that the project really makes use of everyone's talents".
Final thoughts on how managers can provide constructive feedback
When delivered in a constructive way, almost all employees welcome feedback. In fact, 96% want it on a regular basis, and find that it improves both their productivity and engagement.
While it is of course important that managers are developing the right skills and behaviors to be able to provide constructive feedback, it’s also important that as an organization you’re investigating the reasons why they are needing to provide negative feedback in the first place.
While it may come down to the employee simply needing to be better coached by their managers so that they can improve on their weaknesses, it may also be a result of poor teamwork. More specifically, it may come down to lack of ground rules within a team, lack of alignment, or even a lack of understanding of what they’re working towards.
At Saberr, we not only provide managers with the tools, knowledge, and support to have performance discussions with their direct reports, but we also help them to develop the habits needed to lead high-performing teams. We do this by using a combination of experiential and digital coaching.