How to give constructive feedback your people want to hear

What is the most constructive way to give feedback? You praise, you criticize or you do both? Some say that the Americans prefer the feedback ‘sandwich’. It means 3-step feedback. You start with positive comments, then add one or two things that can be done better, and finish with more positive points. However, some leadership training experts advise that one should step away from this model. Their argument: couching criticism with positive comments can dilute the message and sound insincere.

I believe the variety in feedback-giving styles roots deep in the culture to which one belongs.

For example, in the German culture, the (subconscious) thinking tends to be: Why state the obvious? There is no need to talk about anything beyond the areas that need attention. A German colleague is more likely to go straight to the critical points. He or she might however come across as being harsh in the eyes of an American teammate. This simplified example is merely used to get the point across. It is obvious that not all Americans (or Germans) act the same.

So, how do you know that your feedback is constructive and has an impact? In an increasingly culturally diverse workplace, there is no simple formula for all feedback. Nevertheless, you can learn to give feedback constructively by starting with the right question. First ask yourself WHY instead of how.

Why do you want to give feedback? You want to help your colleague to work better, right? Keep a positive attitude and start any performance review conversation with it.

“Let’s look into how we can improve our performance in the next quarter.”

When you talk to people about WHY, your message goes to the part of the brain which controls feelings and drives behaviors. When people empathize with your motivation, they are more likely to accept your feedback and work on it.

If you are interested in starting with WHY, check out this TED Talk about How great leaders inspire actions

Now, let’s move on to HOW

You have set up a positive mindset about giving meaningful feedback. Now you should know about the right time and space, and adopt the right behaviors to give feedback constructively.

The right time

It is better to give feedback sooner than later. How soon depends on the specific situation. When a teammate does a good job, you should pay her or him a compliment as soon as possible. Whenever other people are affected by a certain behavior, try to address the issues in time so further damage can be avoided. If strong emotion is involved, it is wise to wait till the heat has gone before giving any comments. Choose the right time for your feedback. Impraise’s mobile app can help you share feedback right when it matters the most.

The right space

Most people like to receive compliments in public. An Oscar is not really as good if you receive it in your front room instead of before an audience including your respectable peers, your family and friends. A public recognition of one’s achievement feeds their needs for respect and boosts their self-esteem, the second highest level in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. When a colleague achieves exceptional sales record, give your compliment in front of the whole sales team. It not only shows your appreciation of his or her contributions but also encourages others to perform better.

Regarding more critical feedback, the golden rule is to do it in private. No one wants to receive negative feedback in front of others. Find an empty conference room or go to the lunch room if it is vacant. Make sure that you choose a place where your colleague and you can relax and feel comfortable. If you want to give your feedback in a meeting room, make sure it is well lit and the temperature is not too hot or cold. Sit close to your colleague so you can have eye contact and do not have to shout. You want to make it like a casual conversation rather than a formal meeting. Alternatively you can take your teammate out for a walk, talk over a coffee and make it a natural and relaxing chat. You want to avoid extra pressure that might block your colleague from receiving the feedback well and ultimately accepting it. Allow enough time and space to discuss unclear points until you reach a common ground of understanding.

The right behaviors

Be specific

Think about the specific behaviors that are important for your team to do an amazing job. For example, having integrity and paying attention to details are essential for a good auditor. An excellent communication skill and the ability to work under pressure are otherwise necessary for those who work in a PR agency. Considering your team, you need to define the ideal behaviors and communicate them up front to your people. Everyone should be aware of those and continuously receive personal feedback on them. Impraise makes this a simple and natural process.

If you notice room for improvement, share it with your colleague in break-down points. Say you receive a complaint from a client. Your colleague failed to help the client to fix a technical problem within the time requested by the client. Besides, he didn’t get back to the client afterwards with an explanation. You don't just tell your colleague that the client is not happy with his service. Instead, break it down into behaviors that would create a good customer service experience: 1. Sticking to a client’s requirements. 2. Keeping good communication with a client: during and after providing a service. 3. Having a strong drive to exceed a client’s expectations. 4. Reaching out for help if appropriate and if necessary. Your feedback will help guide him away from inappropriate behaviors so that he can deliver a better experience to a client the next time.

Offer suggestions for improvement

Give some practical examples about how to do things better. Practical examples are easy to remember so your colleague is more likely to take up your suggestions. Provide a sense of direction. For example, a colleague achieved a higher sales record in the last quarter. You are giving feedback to him or her. Besides a compliment on a good job, you can offer him or her a direction to move forward, like to get involved in training new sales staff.

Listen actively

Always listen to what others have to say. Why do they choose design A instead of design B? Is it because of their personal preference? Do they know certain scientific research backing up option A? or Do more tested users give positive feedback on A than B? Ask clarifying questions and encourage them to give suggestions. When you listen actively, you know more about their field of interests and discover development solutions. The knowledge will help your feedback be more constructive.

Follow up

Do not just throw an icy bucket of your opinions at someone and leave them with it. You need to follow up. Come back to the person after a week or a month, depending on the nature of the matter. After you suggest your accounting team to use a new tool to keep track of small expenses, check back with them after a month. Ask if they are comfortable with changing their way. You can sit down with them to see if the new tool saves them more time and helps them keep a more accurate report. Ask for their feedback.

The final word: Practice

It takes practice to give constructive feedback. People hold various perspectives, and respond to feedback in different ways. Giving feedback to a dominant character and to a timid person on a similar matter can be two different experiences. Practice gives you the flexibility and confidence in delivering feedback in the most constructive way. Practice giving feedback to your colleague today with

  • A mindset starting with WHY

  • Appropriate choice of TIME & SPACE

  • The right BEHAVIORS

Do you find these tips helpful? Are you struggling with a dilemma and you are not sure if your feedback would help? We would love to hear your stories.