How to Give Constructive Feedback to Anyone

Nobody wants to do constructive feedback poorly — generally, no one wants to do it, period. The experience makes us uncomfortable, whether we have something we need to discuss with a peer, report or a manager. But, our professional relationships cannot improve if we do not address the failings. Plus, the longer we wait to bring up these issues, the more awkward it gets, and the more likely someone is to take feedback as a personal attack (i.e., this is something you’ve been thinking about for several weeks) rather than a helpful nudge.

Most often, managers are responsible for delivering feedback to their team. But, sometimes projects span departments and you need to give feedback to a peer in order to work together more effectively. On perhaps more rare occasions, an employee may feel she needs to have a difficult conversation with a manager. The goal is to improve processes without detracting from a relationship. When done well, constructive feedback can leave both parties excited to work together again, knowing the crossed wires have been dealt with. It sets up a team for future success and high performance.

If it’s time to give constructive feedback, make sure you follow these guidelines so the receiver can benefit from your thoughts.

1. Listen

When most people set out to deliver corrective feedback, they focus on the content. In an attempt to get it over with as quickly as possible, they plan out what they will say and assume once they get it out, everything is done. For many reasons, this falls short. Research shows that when managers spent more time listening, employees felt the feedback was more honest.

2. Avoid “You” Statements

Yes, feedback is about the person on the receiving end. But, the person delivering the feedback is, by nature, involved, since they are part of the discussion. It’s human nature to take corrective feedback personally, as being called out on mistakes threatens a person’s social status. The best way to avoid making the criticism feel personal is to flip the statements around. Instead of saying, “You missed the mark here,” try saying “We didn’t score the deal because we didn’t have this feature built in time.” When you frame an individual as part of a team’s larger success, you set them up to build confidence by showing improvement.

3. Don’t Send Corrective Feedback Online

As great as our online tools for communication are these days — with GIFs and stickers and even live video — there are valuable nonverbal cues that cannot be replicated online. Digital communication also heightens the temptation to check out instead of actually hearing and responding to feedback. Eye contact ensures you’re being heard, and also allows the giver of feedback to show empathy. So, while you’re giving feedback in person, be sure your posture and tone reflect the empathy you’re able to convey, too!

4. Keep Criticism Private

One of the worst experiences I’ve had as an employee was when my boss denied making a mistake — implying it was my mistake — while her boss was in earshot. Had it been a personal conversation, I would have been able to take responsibility and a plan for doing a better job next time. The same goes for giving feedback in front of the rest of a team. Corrective messages can put someone on the defensive, and if it’s delivered in a group, they’ll suddenly need to defend their value to each of those other people, too.

On the other hand, praise is at the opposite end of the spectrum and will grow in impact when delivered in front of a group.

5. Don’t Focus on the Problem

This may seem counter-intuitive, but research shows employees know there is a problem before corrective feedback is delivered. Addressing the problem itself should happen quickly. Then, you can move on to the bulk of the feedback conversation: Reassuring the other person that you still have a positive relationship, value their contributions and are confident they are capable of improved performance. Once the problem is stated, don’t go back to it — that could imply that you’ll continue to hold this failing against the other person, and their future performance won’t change your mind.

Forward-looking feedback, in contrast, is focused on solutions and improved subsequent performance.

6. Always Include Supporting Examples

The worst kind of feedback comes without an example. Perhaps you want a team member to follow up with sales leads more regularly. She may have a schedule that she believes is working, so in lieu of a specific example, she has no choice but to continue her current process. A specific example can illuminate the feedback and indicate the best solution.

Corrective feedback without examples also can detract from trust: The receiver may assume it’s the result of personal feelings, since no specifics were mentioned.

7. Take Your Time

It can be tempting to deliver corrective feedback and move on to lighter subjects. A little humor clears the air, and wouldn’t we all rather be talking about positive topics? But getting through corrective feedback too quickly risks a serious misunderstanding. First, the receiver may feel the feedback wasn’t a big deal and fail to produce better results later on. Also, although initially the tone of the conversation remains positive, the receiver may find herself wracking her brain later, trying to understand what was meant by the feedback, and will internalize these feelings of inadequacy instead of bringing up the topic again.

Communicating that you are comfortable in these critical conversations means others will feel safe discussing their doubts and asking questions.

8. Allow Discussion Before Proposing Solutions

In the ultimate one-way conversation, a person will name the problem and solution like a dictator. The issue here is that it will only work with people who enjoy being micro-managed. If your solution would work well for another person, we wouldn’t be here in the first place. Also, people generally have a hard time following orders to a T — coming up with their own solutions promotes motivation and ownership, which brings better results.

9. Don’t Mix Corrections With Half-Hearted Compliments

A corrective conversation should be focused. When the conversation has been planned in advance and both parties know what they’ll be covering, opening with a compliment will often come off as forced and will not feel genuine. The best way to avoid this is to frame the corrective feedback itself as positive. You’re eager for a great working relationship and there’s this one thing that will make that happen. That said, corrective feedback should not be delivered in a vacuum and apart from positive feedback completely, which brings us to …

10. Deliver Criticism Inside a Larger Feedback Loop

Companies with a culture of feedback do the best job with corrective feedback. Say a high-performing employee meets goals consistently for her first six months on the job, and then makes one mistake. If the first piece of feedback she gets is negative in nature, it may feel as though all the previous successes were not appreciated. For those who do well with ratios, aim for 3:1 positive to corrective feedback. Feedback will be received better when it’s part of a greater context.

11. Don’t End Feedback After One Conversation

Feedback doesn’t end when the meeting ends. If feedback is to truly be constructive, the real work starts once the conversation is over. We should anticipate that a behavior change will be made based on the conversation, and be ready to compliment the receiver for a job well done. This paves the way for effective constructive feedback conversations in the future.

Get our worksheet on feedback conversations for managers and employees.