Constructive Feedback in the Workplace

How you give feedback to employees impacts their motivation to perform and your long-term relationships.

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Strategies for Sharing Constructive Feedback

"What can you say to your employees and how can you say it?"

"Where can you give and receive feedback?"

"How can you bring out the best in your staff?"

"How do you handle difficult issues without inflaming the situation?"

"How do you respond to negative feedback yourself?"

These are common questions, many of them reflecting frustration and fear of dealing with the "hard stuff" of managing people. But giving constructive feedback to employees doesn't have to be difficult.

Positive feedback, when you tell people they've done well, should be easy. For example:

  • thanking people for doing a job well
  • commending them for solving a problem for you
  • discussing progress with teams and praising their commitment
  • celebrating successes when everyone's combined efforts have paid off

This is the kind of feedback that everyone likes; the kind that motivates people to perform well consistently. Here are some more practical strategies for improving feedback at work.

Give Feedback to Encourage Employees

Give feedback to encourage people to continue "putting-in" great effort, or to help them through setbacks, or when people lack confidence or skills. Respect people for the value of their time, their work and their commitment. Show your respect with words that make employees feel good.

Try saying, "You're right!" when someone successfully challenges an idea or work practice. Ask, "Can you spare a few minutes?" when you need to interrupt someone at work. Then wait for the positive reactions.

Use Feedback to Overcome Negativity

A leader must remain optimistic at all times, but how can you convert negativity into something positive? When someone says, "That's a stupid idea!" you could respond, "How could we change it to make it more realistic?" Try the ideas in our guide, 2 Way Feedback, and then add your own.

Coaching Is the Best Feedback

Coaching is the best kind of feedback. Coaching is based on mutual respect, strict confidentiality and trust. A coach believes that people are able to change the way they operate and achieve more if they are given the opportunity and are willing to do something about it.

Questioning is a fundamental skill of coaching. A coach asks questions to:

  • assess where the person might need help
  • discover how s/he can best help
  • help people find solutions for themselves.

Our book, 2 Way Feedback, will show you how to ask questions and what questions to ask. Coaching strategies then vary according to the willingness and the skills of the person.

Turn Criticism into Constructive Feedback

Avoid feedback that however unintentionally criticizes the employee rather than their actions. If you leave them feeling humiliated and resentful, they will be even more reluctant to change. You can't ignore the problem if something is obviously wrong, but there is a difference between criticism and constructive feedback.

Talking about a "bad attitude" is unlikely to be helpful because the person won't know what they need to change. Telling someone they are incompetent or lazy is a personal attack on their character and will probably lead to an emotional response.

Constructive criticism means starting from a different position. Your criticism should be factual, impersonal and timely. The value of changing their behavior must also be clear. You might say, "This week I've noticed you've been late to three sales briefings and now you want to leave early today for a dental appointment. When you behave so casually the rest of the team feel resentful and tomorrow someone will have to do your work for you. So what can we do about it?" Now here's a chance for the person to respond.

Giving Feedback in Really Difficult Situations

Some situations may have you feeling anxious and finding the right words to say at that moment may not come easily. So, next time you are about to face a really difficult situation, try this four-step plan:

  1. Prepare yourself – checking facts and positions, dealing with feelings.
  2. Approach the situation constructively – using the right words that you have prepared.
  3. Deal with excuses – respectfully.
  4. Make sure people can do what they say they will.

Encouraging Feedback from Others

Do you listen when your staffs complain about a customer or a situation? Or do you dismiss their comments because they haven't happened to you? As a business owner or manager you need feedback to find out immediately if something is wrong, or to hear what a customer has said, or if relationships are growing tense.

How do you encourage that kind of feedback? Listen to what people have to say. True listening isn't all that easy; however, our book, 2 Way Feedback, shows you how to really listen – actively listen. Try listening to your staff, actively listening, even though your schedule is full and business is frantic, and see how trust develops.

Accepting Negative Feedback

Negative feedback? It's a little like letting the genie out of the bottle and then finding you can't put it back. However, accepting negative feedback gracefully and gratefully is a skill of great leadership. Remember, though, other people may not know how to give negative feedback diplomatically, like you have. So take a deep breath and swallow your pride.

You may find these guidelines useful when receiving negative feedback.

  • Listen without interruption – you may learn something of real value.
  • If you hear something you don't agree with, simply say, "That's interesting!" and discuss it at the end.
  • Ask questions to clarify what exactly went wrong; what you did or didn't do.
  • Acknowledge what is true, but don't necessarily change your position – you may have good reasons for your actions.
  • Before taking any action, ask for time to think and then get back to the person.

Can feedback really help to improve working relationships and productivity? Remember, feedback doesn't always have to be negative. Start by looking for occasions when you can give positive feedback and remember to plan carefully for the occasions when you have to give negative feedback – and make it constructive. Try some of these ideas and see what happens.

Expert Author: DipEd, BA, MMgt, MEdStud, ACC

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