Constructive feedback is hard to give. Think about the the last time you criticized someone’s work. Was it received well? How did it make you feel? In answering these questions, you probably got an uneasy feeling and maybe a tinge of regret.
Criticism is hard for some people to receive too, especially if it is done poorly. It can make the person feel incompetent and make them grow contempt for the person who provided the feedback.
And this makes sense – from an evolutionary psychology perspective, since humans are social animals, when we don’t get along with someone, we don’t want to include them in our social circle since they aren’t conducive to our survival.
However, in the modern workplace, providing constructive feedback is essential for employee productivity and improves company culture.
In this article, you’ll find out why you should make constructive feedback a critical part of your employee feedback process, and how to do it properly so you don’t get excluded from the tribe.
Why Can’t I Just Give Positive Feedback?
Giving positive feedback or recognition is easy. It makes both the feedback receiver and provider feel good and it keeps them happy in their job. They feel like a useful asset to the company and know they are on the right path.
But what if they’re not on the right path? You can’t just ignore the mistakes they’re making. Many managers avoid negative feedback to protect the ego of the employee and keep a happy relationship with them, which doesn’t benefit anyone.
Receiving negative feedback is far better than receiving no feedback at all, mainly because it provides an opportunity to improve. Employees that go months without a manager saying anything to them may feel lost or lose motivation to work harder. However, if they receive that constructive feedback, change can ensue.
The Positive Side of Negative Feedback
Generally speaking, positive feedback is scarcely specific. It usually consists of a general “good job” or “I like what you did with that.”
Negative feedback, however, is much harder to give without explanation. If someone did something wrong, you generally want them to know what they did wrong. Negative feedback should look like a marked up draft of a document: the red lines are clear indications of where a new set of eyes saw fault where the original author did not.
One largely overlooked benefit of negative feedback is that it makes the employee recognize that the work they’re doing is important enough to be criticized formally.
When you give feedback, whether it be through a periodic performance review, or through a continuous feedback solution like WIRL, it gives you the opportunity to assess overall skills that are essential for proper company functioning and improvement. Getting a “well done” for a presentation is much different than someone challenging a point you made, because it deepens the discussion and makes the presenter aware that the audience cares about getting the facts straight.
What About the So-Called “Oreo Approach?”
For the past decade or so, experts have been bouncing around the idea of the “Oreo Approach” (a.k.a. “the feedback sandwich” or the informal “sh** sandwich”) when giving feedback.
This requires starting off by providing one piece of positive feedback, getting to the piece of negative feedback you’re really trying to address, then finishing off with another positive, or spinning the negative positively. One example may be:
“I want to start off by telling you I really appreciate how much effort and time you put into this project. However, I just think that you should have put a bit more focus on editing, but I mean I think you’re definitely capable of fixing that in the future.”
While it may feel like the easiest way to give feedback, it is the least conducive to improvement. It undermines the importance of the error and discourages discussion. By using this method, you’re influencing the person implicitly, instead of being transparent and getting to the real point of the conversation and working towards a solution.
So How Do You Give Effective Negative Feedback?
Alright, now let’s get down to it. How do you give negative feedback properly? Here are 6 simple ingredients to providing effective criticism:
- Be direct, but considerate. This goes back to the Oreo Approach – don’t try to sandwich the negative feedback with positives. Get straight to the point, but remember to be considerate to how the recipient would want to receive feedback. Some people like the bare knuckle “you messed up”, while others could use a little bit of “you could use improvement with…”
- Be specific. Let the person know what exactly you didn’t like. Being as detailed as possible allows both of you to work through a solution (remember, it’s a discussion!) to improve for the future.
- Don’t wait (or rush). If you wait too long before giving negative feedback, you might start to dismiss its importance or forget relevant details. You want the issue fresh in both yours and the receiver’s minds so that it’s still relevant and can foster immediate improvement. Major companies like Deloitte and Accenture have already scrapped the annual reviews because they want to focus on developing people faster. However, don’t rush to give feedback either, because emotions may still be high and you might say something you regret. Consider sleeping on it!
- Don’t make assumptions. Sometimes mistakes are out of the person’s control. Did their system crash? Did they have bad team members? Find out the whole picture before digging into them. This goes back to opening up discussion – let them have a chance to defend themselves.
- Make it about the behaviour not the person. Telling a person that they are incompetent for a mistake not only makes them feel bad, but also hinders them from improving in the future, since you’re insulting who they are as a person as opposed to the behaviour they displayed. Depersonalizing negative feedback and sticking to the facts of the observed behaviour allows for the opportunity for you to suggest ways in which they can improve, whereas putting down their general self-efficacy makes them believe they are incapable of improvement.
- Be discreet. Don’t give negative feedback in front of an audience. Even if you phrase it properly, nobody wants others to know that they messed up.
Here’s a good example that incorporates all 6 of these elements:
“Hey Sharon, at yesterday’s meeting I found it a bit hard to follow along with your presentation slides. They didn’t seem to follow a natural flow and didn’t address all of the points I wanted you to include. I’d like to know if this was because I didn’t explain all my points clearly for you to understand and if you’d like me to go over anything with you.”
In this example:
- It was direct (e.g., starting with “I found it a bit hard to follow along with your presentation slides”)
- It was specific to what was disliked about the presentation (that all points were not addressed)
- The feedback was given the next day
- The fault was not assumed to be entirely theirs (they may not have understood the explanation of the task)
- It avoided criticizing the person’s abilities (instead, criticized the clarity of the slides)
To make it discreet, this can either be done in person, or through a continuous feedback solution like WIRL that would allow them to refer back to the feedback in the future, so no details are lost. And unlike the common quarterly or annual performance review, WIRL allows you to give feedback in a timely manner.
By including the above criteria, it makes it hard for someone receiving your constructive feedback to hate you. You’ll give off the impression that you are there to help and guide them for the betterment of themselves and the company, and it won’t sound like an attack. This will give them direction on how to improve in the future and feel better about the job their doing, thus increasing their job satisfaction, your management capabilities and ultimately employee retention.
How do you feel about constructive or negative feedback? Share a story of a good (or bad) experience giving or receiving some criticism below.