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Seven steps for giving better feedback

By Hannah Massen

Whether you’re a business owner, manager, or employee, the people you work with are bound to make mistakes or need some extra help. There’s no question about that. But it’s how you give feedback that can mean the difference between a valuable learning experience and a “slap on the wrist” that leaves coworkers scared to approach you again. 

Feedback, when delivered effectively, is one of the most powerful tools you have at your disposal. A piece of constructive criticism can improve employee performance while improving the levels of trust and communication in your office (which is worth several pricey leadership webinars alone). But while that’s all well and good in theory, most people don’t respond well to feedback, even if they ask for it. 

When people’s intentions, effort, and abilities are called into question, they often feel backed into a corner, which is when a psychological “fight or flight” response kicks in.

Most bosses and managers understand that employees are uncomfortable receiving criticism, and this feeds their own hesitancy to deliver it. In many instances, a manager is concerned that they will risk damaging a relationship with an employee if they offer criticism, so they delay or avoid giving it. In other cases, a boss or manager might not have been trained in delivering feedback and they come off as too harsh, leaving both parties angry and regretful later. 

You’ve probably been on “the other side of the desk” at least once in your life, so you know how deflating it can be when your boss rattles off a laundry list of critiques without a hint of empathy. But that’s not the only way to get through to your employees. It’s completely possible to give constructive suggestions to your coworkers that are both productive and insightful without making at least one of you feel like trash. Use this seven-step model to do just that.

1. Examine your intentions

Before you so much as email your employee, take a minute to examine your own intentions. Is the purpose of your feedback to punish the employee, get something off your chest to make you feel better, or is it to help your employee improve because you genuinely care about them? There is a time and place for the first two reasons, but you may want to take a day or two to process your own feelings about the situation before you come charging out of the gates with a lecture. 

2. Ask permission

You never want to launch into a veritable performance review without giving the other person a heads-up. Why? Offering unsolicited advice can immediately put the other person on defense mode, starting the conversation on an emotional high and closing them off to any useful information you have to share. Opening the conversation with a quick, “Hey, do you have a minute for some notes on your pitch deck?” will help them prepare for what they’re about to hear, positive or negative. 

3. Keep it private

Don’t criticize publicly – ever. This includes emails where other managers or staff members are not-so-casually CCed into the conversation. For people who don’t like being the center of attention, being praised publicly can be uncomfortable, so you can imagine how a public scolding might make them feel. Always offer feedback in a private email or office where the conversation can happen – and stay – between the two of you. 

4. Be specific and timely

Saying, “I wasn’t impressed with your presentation” is a lot less effective than saying, “Your presentation last Tuesday didn’t include the scope of work and timeline we discussed. What happened?” Employee feedback should be solutions oriented, crystal clear, and timely for maximum impact. Be open to their reasons, but come prepared with concrete points on how they can apply the feedback in the future.

5. Focus on performance, not personality

Focus on an employee’s behavior (what they do) rather than their personality (what they’re like). Consider these two examples from “The Secret to Giving Constructive Criticism” and think about what type of feedback you would like to receive: 

Example 1: “Your arrogance is causing a problem.”

Example 2: “When you interrupt me in front of a client, it causes a problem.”

Example 2 is clearly the better choice as it’s focused on the person’s behavior, while Example 1 takes a jab at the person’s character, which will only make them resentful. 

6. Pause 

Giving a full-blown dissertation about what your employee needs to do better is about as effective as talking to a brick wall. After you’ve said your piece, stop – then ask for the other person’s reaction. 

7. Follow up 

Receiving feedback isn’t easy, but implementing it can be even harder. Instead of treating feedback conversations as a one-and-done, follow up with your direct report and show appreciation when you see improvement along the way. This will show them that you care about their success, and it can motivate them to keep up the great work. 

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