Giving Constructive Feedback

Performance feedback can be given two ways: through constructive feedback or through praise and criticism. Don't fall into the trap of giving praise and criticism on employee performance.

  • Constructive feedback is information-specific, issue-focused, and based on observations. It comes in two varieties:
    Praise and criticism are both personal judgments about a performance effort or outcome, with praise being a favorable judgment and criticism, an unfavorable judgment. Information given is general and vague, focused on the person, and based on opinions or feelings.
  • Be direct when delivering your message. Get to the point and avoid beating around the bush. Both negative and positive feedback should be given in a straightforward manner.
  • Avoid "need to" phrases, which send implied messages that something that didn't go well. For example, "Jane, you need to get your reports turned in on time, and you need to spell check them." This message is not really performance feedback. It implies that Jane did not do something well with her reports, but it doesn't report exactly what happened. Providing clarity on what occurred is the aim of feedback.
  • Be sincere and avoid giving mixed messages. Sincerity says that you mean what you say with care and respect. Mixed messages are referred to as "yes, but" messages. For example, "John, you have worked hard on this project, but. . . ." What follows is something the person is not doing well and is the real point of the message. The word "but," along with its cousins "however" and "although," when said in the middle of a thought, create contradictions or mixed messages. In essence, putting "but" in the middle tells the other person, "Don't believe a thing I said before."
  • In positive feedback situations, express appreciation. Appreciation alone is praise. Yet when you add it to the specifics of constructive feedback, your message carries an extra oomph of sincerity. For example: "Sue, your handling of all the processing work while John did the callbacks made for an efficient effort and showed good teamwork. Everything you did was accurate, as well. Thanks so much for helping out. Such initiative is a real value to the team."
  • In negative feedback situations, express concern. A tone of concern communicates a sense of importance and care and provides the appropriate level of sincerity to the message. Tones such as anger, frustration, disappointment, and the ever-popular sarcasm tend to color the language of the message and turn attempts at negative feedback into criticism. The content of the message gets lost in the noise and harshness.
    The purpose of negative feedback is to create awareness that can lead to correction or improvement in performance. If you can't give negative feedback in a helpful manner, in the language and tone of concern, you defeat its purpose.
  • Give the feedback person-to-person, not through messengers of technology. The nature of constructive feedback is verbal and informal. That can be done only by talking live to the employee, either face-to-face — or by phone when you physically can't be together.
  • State observations, not interpretations. Observations are what you see occur; interpretations are your analysis or opinion of what you see occur. Tell what you've noticed, not what you think of it, and report the behavior you notice at a concrete level, instead of as a characterization of the behavior. Observations have a far more factual and nonjudgmental aspect than do interpretations.

Positive feedback is news or input to an employee about an effort well done.

Negative feedback is news to an employee about an effort that needs improvement. Negative feedback doesn't mean a terrible performance, but rather a performance in which the outcomes delivered should be better. So negative is not a negative word in this case.

The guidelines for giving constructive feedback fall into four categories: content, manner, timing, and frequency.

Content

Content is what you say in the constructive feedback.

  1. In your first sentence, identify the topic or issue that the feedback will be about.
  2. Provide the specifics of what occurred.

Without the specifics, you only have praise or criticism. Start each key point with an "I" message, such as, "I have noticed," "I have observed," "I have seen," or when the need exists to pass on feedback from others, "I have had reported to me." "I" messages help you be issue-focused and get into the specifics.

Manner

Manner is how you say the constructive feedback. As you may know, how you say something often carries more weight than what you have to say — manner is an important element when giving feedback.

Timing

Timing answers this question: When do you give an employee feedback for a performance effort worth acknowledging?

The answer is ASAP (as soon as possible). Feedback is meant to be given in real-time, as close as possible to when the performance incident occurs so that the events are fresh in everyone's minds. When feedback is given well after the fact, the value of the constructive feedback is lessened.

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When giving negative feedback, you may want to apply a different timeline: ASAR (as soon as reasonable/ready — that is, when you're ready). Sometimes when an incident happens, you aren't feeling too good about it, and you need time to cool off and get your thoughts in order before you give negative feedback (so that your manner displays a tone of concern). Doing that may mean giving the feedback tomorrow rather than right now, but tomorrow is still timely, and your feedback will come across as far more constructive.

Frequency

Frequency answers the question, "How often should your employees receive constructive feedback on their performance?"

This last guideline is the most important because it makes all the other guidelines work. Use constructive feedback regularly to acknowledge real performance. Try to catch and respond to employees doing the job right just as much as you catch and respond to them doing something not quite right — and don't acknowledge how they are performing only once or twice a year.

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Be sure to keep notes on the performance feedback that you give. It helps you track what's happening in people's performance rather than relying on your memory.

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