How to give constructive feedback

women receiving negative feedback in a meeting
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As a manager you may occasionally have to give feedback for poorly executed work. The real skill is how you handle the communication process, ensuring your criticisms are tactfully asserted and the recipient leaves feeling supported and motivated to improve.

There’s a meme going around that shows the difference between leadership and management. It’s a little stick figure graphic of two similar scenes, one where a person is instructing a team as they push a boulder, and the other where the person is pushing with the team, right at the head of the line. The lesson being that managers guide from afar, but true leaders are right there in the trenches.

The leader who does get in the trenches with the troops is also the leader who has the most difficult time with harsh feedback.

The best leaders hope they never have to critique work that is truly terrible, but the best leaders also know that sometimes people can perform well below their potential.

Such feedback is not only important, it’s crucial to ensure it's properly received and implemented, so that it can be turned into a learning experience.

There are two major psychological roadblocks at play: the best leaders are usually the closest to their teams - they don’t preach from a pulpit, and conversely, the team can’t help but see them as “one of the guys”.

Problem is, harsh feedback from “one of the guys” can be difficult to digest. A lack of distance causes egos to flare up and the whole point of the feedback process is lost.

But there are ways to traverse those pitfalls and create learning experiences out of the worst pieces of work. Because that’s the point, isn’t it? To educate, inspire and do our best to ensure no one gets left behind? 

Here are my tips for giving feedback to someone who has done a truly terrible job.

Temper your emotions

When faced with terrible work, it is natural to want to lash out in anger and frustration. Unfortunately, these feelings are the enemy of a healthy conversation.

You have to set the mood, because you can’t depend on the other person to maintain composure. So before you begin, take a deep breath, calm down, collect your thoughts before you call the other person in.

Don’t delay

This is not a meeting either party looks forward to, and as leader you have the option of giving it a few hours, or even days.

You may even convince yourself that giving it time may make the bitter pill go down easier. But delay comes with its own set of problems. Time often tends to smooth out the rough edges, especially when it comes to people’s memories.

Delay too much, and the recipient might have already forgiven himself in his own mind and moved on. Worse, he may have convinced himself that he did a better job than he actually did. So it’s best to sort it out before too much time has passed and the memory has faded.

Face to face

You may be tempted to shoot off an email and let that be the end of that - an unpleasant discussion avoided. However, it’s a terrible idea, especially for the person at the receiving end.

Remember, he or she is likely to already be in a guilty and defensive state of mind, and likely to read the worst between the lines.

It’s also likely that they have questions, but aren’t sure if you would welcome them or not. An email in such situations is very unlikely to make this an effective learning experience.

Maintain privacy

There are those who feel that giving negative feedback publicly lights a fire under person and encourages him to do better, if only to prove people wrong.

However, my personal experience is that in most cases, a public critique ends up being an exercise in humiliation and little else. If there are no empty rooms or discreet corners, simply take a walk, but find a way to do this privately.

Make a list of talking points

Ideally, such feedback sessions should be conversations, but in reality, the person who has messed up is unlikely to speak a lot. Without a bit of back and forth, you might find yourself rambling - this can dilute the message and confuse the recipient.

To avoid falling into this trap, make a checklist before such a meeting and make ensure you move from one point to the next when you’ve said all you have to say.

Figure out the root cause

Consider why do people make catastrophic mistakes? Mistakes that make such unpleasant meetings necessary? In my experience, it’s either because they care too much or too little.

People who care too much also worry too much. They get so worked up, that they end up making a mess. People who care too little simply cannot be bothered to do a good job - the end result does not matter to them.

Obviously, even with catastrophic mistakes, you’d rather the person care too much rather than too little. Because in the case of the former, a few tweaks to the work process and some coaching to help them manage stress can convert a mess of a worker into a star. With the latter, no amount of coaching can help unless the attitude itself is addressed first.

Let the recipient state his case

Previously I mentioned how all feedback meetings should have a bit of back and forth. As the leader and the critic, it is your responsibility to at least try to ensure that happens.

The recipient is usually either too guilty or too defensive to speak on their own, so encourage them to take control of the narrative for a while and let them have their say.

It makes an immense difference if they feel that you are genuinely interested in fixing the problem, rather than admonishing them.

Talk about the performance, not the problem

Of course, problematic behaviour and chronic issues need to be discussed, but when critiquing a particular piece of work, it’s important to stick to the topic at hand.

Ensure the discussion does not veer into a personal space, and you don’t say anything that may be perceived as irrelevant, or worse, a personal attack. People on the defensive are already likely to assume the worst, so be careful to state everything in the context of the work that is being critiqued.

Discuss the way forward

No such meeting can truly be called successful if the recipient of the feedback does not leave knowing exactly what to do.

It is important that you discuss practical, actionable strategies that need to be followed to ensure the person does not perform as poorly again.

Even better is to set practical goals as well as a calendar for follow-ups. This ensures the person has some amount of accountability after the review.

Close the meeting on a positive note

Typically, feedback meetings follow the sandwich method - positive words and encouragement are sprinkled throughout the discussion. However, during such situations when the work is truly, irredeemably poor, positive feedback might come off as forced and insincere.

It’s much better to end with a statement of faith and confidence, with reference to previous, more successful projects.

The feedback meetings is one of the most important, and most difficult tasks, a leader has to undertake. Especially when the team member is at his lowest, a leader has to rise to the occasion and provide honest critique and harsh truths, and yet make sure the person is inspired to move on and do better.

It is in such situations where bluntness must be tempered with empathy and harshness with hope. As leaders, it is your moment to be the best of yourselves, so those you lead can be too.

About Richard Foster-Fletcher

Richard Foster-Fletcher

Richard Foster-Fletcher is a member of Toastmasters International, a not-for-profit organisation that has provided communication and leadership skills since 1924 through a worldwide network of clubs. There are more than 400 clubs and 10,000 members in the UK and Ireland. Members follow a structured educational programme to gain skills and confidence in public and impromptu speaking, chairing meetings and time management. To find your nearest club, visit www.toastmasters.org

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