Mastering the art of delivering constructive feedback
Despite knowing that it's a learning experience, sometimes there's no amount of Nutella and venting that can help you to brush off particularly soul-shattering negative feedback.
No one likes to be told that they've missed the mark, and whether you're dishing it out, or receiving it, negative feedback can be painful. So now that I'm responsible for delivering feedback to others, I'm cautious of creating learning opportunities without completely crushing spirits. So, I've developed a set of rules that I use to make sure my feedback is clear, without it feeling like a personal attack.
Deliver feedback face to face
I've found that feedback is generally best delivered in person, or over the phone, especially when it’s negative. There are so many cues that we miss when we receive feedback over email, such as tone, gesture and facial expressions. It is so easy to misinterpret a message, whereas in-person feedback is harder to misconstrue. I think we all need to stop hiding behind emails to make sure our feedback is properly understood, myself included!
Avoid casting judgement
Giving feedback is an opportunity to improve performance and offer help and advice. Most professionals want to improve and get better at their craft, so feedback should be approached as a learning opportunity, not an attack. I try and select my words carefully to avoid judging behaviour or work as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, instead, I focus on the action and what was effective or ineffective.
Be prepared to discuss the feedback
Be sincere. If I am delivering feedback, I always prepare myself to openly discuss the topic. Depending on the situation, the person may have a good reason as to why they acted or did something in a certain way. Just as you would expect to be heard as you deliver feedback, be prepared to listen too. The person may want clarification, or to discuss how they can resolve the issue moving forward.
Be direct with feedback and use facts
I know that delivering negative feedback can be daunting, but that doesn’t mean you should be cryptic. I hate feedback that's unhelpful, so I'm always careful to say specifically what didn’t work, and why. If there’s rules or guidelines they failed to follow, tell them which ones they need to address. I try and focus on the behaviour, not assumptions about the person’s character, and avoid inferences or accusations about why someone has acted in a certain way. Instead, I stick to facts or observations, which keeps things less emotional!
Not so great: ‘Do you think that you can just stroll into work whenever you feel like it? Everyone else manages to arrive on time. You are always late.’
Better: ‘I’ve noticed that you have been arriving late to work over the past two weeks, which is cutting into your working time and decreasing your productivity.’
Tell them why it’s not working
Feedback like ‘I just don’t like it’ or ‘it’s not quite what I’m after’ or ‘it’s not right’ without any further direction is the type of negative feedback that I find most frustrating. It tells me that the person hasn’t bothered to consider what specifically they don’t like or how it can be improved. Without a rationale to back up your feedback, it sounds like you've just decided to criticise the work or action for your own personal amusement.
Once you know why something isn’t working, the path to fixing it becomes a lot clearer. Considering why you’re not happy with something takes longer, but will help you to clarify your thoughts so that the receiver can easily correct course.
There may also be certain situations where you’ve made the same mistake or know from experience why something is not going to work. Explaining this will give the receiver some context and reasoning behind your feedback and will make it easier to accept.
Offer alternative solutions or resolutions
My favourite type of feedback is when the person giving feedback offers another way to solve the problem. Sure, it might not be the final solution, but it shows that they are opening a dialogue to discuss the way to move forward, not just saying ‘fix it’ and walking away.
I find this is especially true of creative projects. Often I’ll give Kane feedback on his work and vice versa. If I don’t think something is working, I always try to offer a way to resolve the issue, rather than just creating another hurdle to overcome. Often, he’ll either say, ok ‘I’ll try it’, or ‘I already tried that and it didn’t work, but maybe I could try XYZ’. This open dialogue helps us to come up with a better solution together, rather than making him feel frustrated that I’ve just thrown a spanner in the works!
Avoid an emotional delivery
Don’t be tempted to deliver feedback when you’re angry, upset or stressed. Emotion-driven feedback is probably going to end with you saying things you regret and can immediately put the receiver on the defensive. Instead, write down what you’d like to say so you can ‘vent’, and, if you have the luxury of time, go home and sleep on it. Review your notes in the morning, remove the emotion and deliver the feedback calmly.
Give constructive feedback regularly
I've had managers who were in the habit of only providing feedback when it was negative, which I found to be really demotivating. I've also experienced the flip side, where I've received overwhelmingly positive feedback. Everyone loves to be told they’re doing a great job, which is why positive feedback is a great motivator, but without the negative, the person will never learn and grow. I try to give frequent, constructive feedback (positive and negative). I find this helps people to gauge what they are doing well, where they can improve and what I value about their work. It also helps them to correct course, learn and work more effectively.
Don’t send mixed messages
Depending on the situation and person, I’ll often try to find the positive in someone’s work, before launching into what I didn’t like. This is especially true if I haven’t given them feedback before or if it’s a new working relationship. If you’re taking this approach, try not to connect the positive feedback to the negative feedback with ‘but’ ‘although’ or ‘however’. When we use these words, it’s indicative that the positive feedback, even though truthful, is trumped by the negative and should be disregarded.
Okay: ‘I really like your writing style for this project Frank, although I think your choice of language in the second paragraph could be amended.’
Better: ‘I really liked your writing style for project Frank, well done. I do have some feedback regarding the language in the second paragraph, can we discuss?’
Pick your battles, and keep it constructive
Everyone has slip ups or bad days when they just don’t perform at their best. Sometimes it’s just not worth giving feedback, especially if the person has already identified what they’ve done wrong themselves, or if giving feedback won’t help them to improve. If you can see someone is stressed, it might be worth waiting until another time to deliver the feedback when it will be better received.
Keep it private
I’ve been in situations where feedback has been delivered to a colleague in front of me. Not only is it awkward and potentially embarrassing for the recipient, it’s also uncomfortable for everyone else in the room. For the most part, it’s best to take someone aside and tell them what they can improve on, rather than airing it in front of the whole team.
Switch it up
None of this advice is prescriptive and I am by no means an expert. Each person and situation is unique, so will require a different tact. In fact, the best leaders I know adapt their approach depending on the circumstances. If in doubt, the best advice is probably some your mum has already given you—put yourself in someone else’s shoes. If you would react negatively, then it might be time to switch up your approach.
What are your tips for delivering feedback? Tell me in the comments below!