Giving effective constructive feedback does not have to be difficult if you keep in mind the following ABCs:
#1: Effective constructive feedback is appropriate in time and in place.
It is important to choose an appropriate time and an appropriate location to give constructive feedback. Feedback should be given timely, and at an appropriate time. Timely constructive feedback occurs within a few days of the observed behavior. This way, the incident will still be fresh in your mind and in the mind of the person with whom you will be speaking. If you wait much longer than a few days, there is a good chance that the person will have forgotten about the behavior. Also, the further removed you are from the date of the incident, the more inclined you will be to lessen the effect of the incident, i.e. “What Bob did wasn’t really that bad. I was probably just overreacting to the situation.” The worst thing you can do as a supervisor is to not address the issue until the employee’s annual performance review. Not only is this unfair to the blindsided employee, it also casts you in a bad light as your supervisors will wonder why you neglected to address the issue when it first arose.
Next, you’ll need to arrange an appropriate time to discuss the issue. Find time in your schedule to allow both you and the other person sufficient time to hold a productive conversation. Five minutes here or there or the fifteen minutes between meetings will not be enough time to sit down and talk. You don’t want the other person to feel rushed or to feel that there is no time for him or her to respond to what’s been said. We’ll discuss a bit later the importance of follow-up.
Location, location, location. When giving constructive feedback, location is just as important a consideration as when purchasing real estate. Constructive feedback should be given in private.
Use your office. If you work in an open cubicle setting, ask to use someone’s office or use an empty conference room or meeting space. The idea is to provide a private and confidential environment for your conversation. Additionally, as a general rule, it is not appropriate to give constructive feedback in front of others. Give your employees and co-workers the respect they deserve by discussing work performance issues in a one-on-one conversation. No one likes to be thrown under the proverbial bus in front of his or her colleagues. Not only is this unprofessional, it embarrasses the employee and makes those co-workers who are present uncomfortable.
#2: Effective constructive feedback focuses on the behavior, not the person.
We all have our own personality flaws, quirks, and idiosyncrasies. Keep in mind when giving your constructive feedback that no one is perfect, including you. Try to refrain from focusing on the person’s shortcomings. Remember we all have them. Instead, focus on the behavior in question. When you focus on the person’s behavior and how it is affecting the workplace as a whole, he or she is less likely to get defensive and will be more likely to be receptive to your message. For instance, suppose one of the members on your team consistently misses deadlines and, as a consequence, causes other members of the team to fall behind in their schedules and meeting their commitments. Your constructive feedback should focus not upon this person’s utter lack of effective time management skills. Rather, your feedback should focus upon how on x occasion, the person’s failure to complete his or her tasks by the prescribed deadline negatively impacted the rest of the team in a, b, and c ways.
#3: Effective constructive feedback is contextual.
Have you ever gotten into an argument with your significant other over what you thought was one issue only to have the argument disintegrate into a shouting match rehashing issues you thought were resolved months ago? Or, perhaps the person brought up something that happened over a year ago that you are now hearing for the first time. You thought to yourself, “Now why didn’t he tell me that my leaving the cap off the toothpaste bothered him a long time ago???” Let’s switch gears to see how this same dynamic plays out in the workplace. You are the supervisor of the customer service department. You’ve asked John to come and speak with you about complaints you’ve recently received about his customer service. Your constructive feedback should be contextual in that it addresses the specific issue before you, namely concerns about the quality of service John is giving to his customers. Now would not be an appropriate time to discuss how John was 45 minutes late to the last department meeting or how he doesn’t contribute to the weekly donut kitty yet helps himself to two glazed Krispy Kremes every Friday morning. Going back to the first quality of effective constructive feedback, that it be appropriate in time, alleviates any contextual problem. When you address and resolve issues in a timely manner (within a reasonable time after the behavior is observed), there is no need to dredge up past wrongdoings because, presumably, they have already been addressed and resolved.
#4: Effective constructive feedback is descriptive.
One of your goals in giving constructive feedback is to identify an area in your colleague or employee’s work performance that could use improvement. Therefore, general comments about working harder, being a better team player, or other euphemistic clichés are not particularly helpful. After all, how can I, as an employee, begin to address and correct an issue if I am not clear which behavior I am engaging in is unsatisfactory? When giving constructive feedback, endeavor to be very specific. Compare and contrast the following examples.
Paul, I need you to start being a better team player.
I am not sure what you mean. I contributed over 120 hours to the Manheim project this month and worked with Paula, Christine, and Scott to make sure those proposals went out to the client on time. I worked late every night last week and came in on the weekend to help Christine finish the reports for the Donaldson project. How am I not being a good team player?
Hello Paul. Thanks for your work on the Manheim project. I appreciate you sacrificing your weekends to get those proposals out to the client on time. I wanted to talk with you today, however, because I have some concerns about your tardiness. I noticed that you arrived late yesterday and again today. I am concerned because you missed some very valuable information during the first part of this morning’s department meeting. The rest of the team and I really value your input and would have welcomed your perspective on the Donaldson project.
Yes, I’ve been meaning to speak with you about my schedule for this week. My wife is six months pregnant and I’ve had to take her to her prenatal checkups and sonogram appointments. I meant to tell you last week, but I got so preoccupied with the Manheim project that it completely slipped my mind.
#5: Effective constructive feedback uses examples.
Along with being descriptive in giving constructive feedback, it is also a good idea to give examples of the person’s behavior that is at issue. For instance, let’s suppose you have a co-worker who routinely monopolizes the discussion during staff meetings. In your discussion with your co-worker, you would want to point to a specific instance where he or she was monopolizing the discussion and then tie that in to how that negatively impacted the others in the group. For any piece of constructive feedback that you give, you need to be able to give concrete examples of the person’s behavior.
#6: Effective constructive feedback invites follow-up from the recipient.
After you have given constructive feedback, you need to allow the other person to speak and be willing to actively listen to his/her viewpoint. Good communication is always a two-way street. There should be a free exchange of ideas and a reciprocal give-and-take of information. Demonstrate by your verbal and nonverbal communication that you are open to listening to the other person’s response. If you hastily call someone into your office, spout off a laundry list of their “bad” behaviors, and hurriedly dismiss him or her without affording an opportunity to respond to what you have said, what exactly have you accomplished? You’ve learned nothing about why the person engaged in the behavior at issue.
#7: Effective constructive feedback is goal-oriented.
Constructive feedback not only identifies an area of concern, it also proposes solutions that can be implemented to address that area of concern. After all, it wouldn’t make any sense to identify an area for improvement and stop there. For instance, if the basis of your feedback was the other person’s tardiness to staff meetings, the two of you may want to set a goal of arriving ten minutes early to future meetings. This, of course, is a simplistic example, but you get the point. After your initial meeting, follow-up with the person at a mutually agreed upon time to discuss his or her progress toward meeting the goal.
#8: Effective constructive feedback is helpful.
The recipient of your constructive feedback needs to know how to improve his or her work performance. Be prepared to offer practical advice and suggestions as to how the recipient can do just that. You might recommend that your employee take part in an upcoming training session on customer service. Or, you may suggest that he or she take a technical writing class at the local community college and arrange for your company to reimburse the employee for the cost of the course. You get the idea. Whatever the area of concern may be, don’t simply stop at identifying it; offer practical and easy to implement solutions to address it.
#9: Effective constructive feedback is given with integrity.
Put yourself in the shoes of the person sitting on the other side of your desk. If the roles were reversed, how would you like to be treated? Observe the “golden rule” policy. While it is important to be honest in your constructive feedback, that doesn’t diminish the importance of showing tact and being respectful. For a quick litmus test to decide whether to say something, ask yourself if you’d either say it directly to your mother or in the presence of your grandmother.
#10: Effective constructive feedback is just.
Please be fair. Policies should be enforced equally across the board. Your expectations for excellence ought be the same for everyone, regardless of your personal feelings about them. Address individual issues on that basis. If you notice an issue common to many people in the department, address these globally during a staff meeting or in a memo.
Being mindful of these attributes should assist you in giving constructive feedback more effectively. Remember… feedback on work performance should lead to solutions, not to the creation of more problems. Happy working!
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