Continuous learning and development are some of the top drivers of employee retention and engagement. But, for this process to be successful, an organization must have a culture of continuous feedback to drive improvement and achievement. But, while many managers have no issue giving positive feedback, many are reluctant to embrace the awkwardness and discomfort of providing negative feedback.
That’s a shame because feedback isn’t a punishment and shouldn’t be approached as such. It’s a way to make employees more aware of their behavior and their impact on the workplace while empowering them to improve. But, coming off too negative can cause employees to become defensive or shut out your words. That’s why perfecting the art of giving constructive feedback is so key to developmental success. This type of feedback is future-focused and emphasizes incremental improvement to motivate – rather than discourage – employees.
Here’s how to deliver constructive feedback in a way that helps boost employee performance and create a culture of continuous learning.
What is constructive feedback?
Feedback is a spectrum. On one extreme, you have negative feedback. Negative feedback is aimed to criticize, punish, and stop a certain behavior. On the other side of the spectrum, you have positive feedback, which is aimed to praise, reward, and reinforce good behavior. While giving positive and negative feedback is good for reinforcing or discouraging existing behavior, neither does a good job of inspiring change.
Constructive feedback falls in the middle of the spectrum and is intended to correct, inspire, and redirect behavior. By nature, it is more corrective, future-oriented, and motivating. It not only tells an employee what behavior or action they took was good or problematic but also explains the either unintended or desired outcome of that action.
Here’s an example of constructive feedback:
Your direct report just gave a fantastic presentation. He used notecards to remember his talking points and made some great, poignant points. As his manager, you want to give him constructive feedback to help him be a better public speaker.
In your next 1-on-1 meeting, you tell him you’re pleased with how well-prepared he was for the presentation and how well it went over with senior leaders. Then, you mention how you know he’s been trying to improve his public speaking skills and say you have a suggestion for him. You tell him you noticed he relies heavily on his notecards to present, but those notecards create a physical boundary between him and his audience and make it harder for him to make eye contact with the rest of the room. Since his goal is to become a great speaker, you suggest he try not to use notes and maintain eye contact with the audience next time.
In this example of feedback, the employee is commended for what they did right but also receives clear advice for progression. Constructive feedback helps show employees you’re invested in their professional growth, which can be an effective way to motivate top performers.
Giving constructive feedback
Giving any type of feedback requires a specific skill set and a high level of emotional intelligence. But, with the right training, anyone can learn to provide effective and constructive feedback. We’ve identified four crucial characteristics that can help you or your managers lead meaningful performance conversations with their employees.
Here’s a look at why you need to prioritize timing, a growth mindset, motivational phrasing, and welcoming body language to ensure you communicate feedback effectively:
There’s a right time and a wrong time to deliver feedback. Think about your own experiences. Would you be more open-minded to feedback after a heated meeting when your emotions are running high or in a 1-on-1 a few hours later? While it’s important to deliver constructive feedback as soon after the behavior as possible, you will have better luck when your recipient is in a better mindset. Strong emotions can cloud a person’s ability to absorb feedback.
It’s also important to deliver feedback at regular intervals so your employees never feel surprised or caught off guard during more formal performance reviews. Continuous feedback allows them to become aware of an issue and self-correct. Waiting too long after an incident to share constructive feedback with an employee is a disservice to them, as they won’t know there’s an issue that needs correcting in the first place.
2. Growth mindset
Sharing biased feedback can damage workplace trust. Managers need to ensure they have all the facts, keep an open mind, and approach professional development conversations with a growth mindset to share constructive feedback successfully. Otherwise, employees can feel attacked, making them more likely to resist feedback, give up, and shy away from setting goals.
The Growth Mindset, developed by American psychologist Carol Dweck, is the belief that your intelligence and personality are not fixed and can develop over time. It means you believe you’re capable of learning, developing, and evolving. When managers have a growth mindset, they understand their team can grow with investment and are more likely to see and explore the potential of their employees. When employees have a growth mindset, they are more likely to learn from feedback, problem-solve, set more productive goals, and rise to the occasion during tough times. Approaching learning and development conversations with a growth mindset can motivate employees and encourage them to live up to their full potential.
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3. Motivating phrasing
It’s not just what you say. - it’s how you say it. Constructive feedback needs to come from a place of curiosity and openness. Using condemning, cohesive, or closed language can alienate an individual. The easiest way to ensure you keep your language open and inviting for a discussion is to swap questions starting with “did,” “is,” or “will,” for those beginning with “who,” “what,” and “how.” This helps you create a two-way conversation that allows your employee to feel heard and allows you to understand their experience and perspective better.
Once you have all the information you need, it’s time to share your clear and actionable constructive feedback. The best formula to follow is simple: clearly state the behavior and its negative outcomes. Here are two examples:
- My feedback for you is to stop [behavior] because it results in [consequence].
- My ask is that you stop using your laptops in meetings. It gives the impression you aren’t engaged and can be distracting to others.
While this phrasing is simple, it helps an employee know what you need from them and how their behavior is impacting others. In some cases, the feedback might concern something they weren't previously aware of. As this type of confrontation might be anxiety-inducing for some, you can flip the phrasing to encourage employees to start a new, positive behavior rather than put an end to an unfavorable behavior. Here’s an example of this approach in action:
- I encourage you to start [action] because it will [intended results].
- I encourage you to start taking notes in meetings, so you don’t forget the tasks that are asked of you.
Whether you want to encourage employees to start or stop a behavior, these phrases can help guide your conversations and ensure you communicate clearly and effectively with your team.
4. Body language
Only 7% of our communication comes from the words and phrases we speak. As it turns out, 38% of our meaning is conveyed by tone and 55% by our body language and mannerisms. This shows that even with the best intentions, our words can still be subconsciously misinterpreted by another party.
When conveying feedback to a direct report or colleague, you need to be mindful not just of your words but also of your body language. To create an environment where the recipient feels safe and valued, make sure you relax your arms and body, make soft eye contact, use a gentle voice, and smile. These small but powerful nonverbal communications can help set the stage for a productive and open feedback conversation.
Using constructive feedback to motivate employee performance
Giving constructive feedback drives change. It allows your employees to be more self-aware and drives behavior change that contributes to better business results. Ultimately, constructive feedback can help improve manager-employee relationships, drive engagement, and even improve retention. That’s why it’s so important to train your managers to get in the habit of delivering regular feedback.
Interested in learning more about constructive feedback? Watch our on-demand webinar, “The power of negative feedback,” to understand the hurdles of giving negative feedback, how companies have found success with frequent feedback, and more.