10 ways to deliver constructive feedback

Learn how to deliver constructive feedback so you aren't thrown to the lions
Delivering constructive feedback can be tough – make sure you get it right!

Hi Tom, thanks for coming to this meeting. I wanted to give you some feedback about that work you did for the client recently. Firstly, I just want to say how fantastic your tie is today – great colour for you. Well, moving on, Shelley told me that you’ve been really dropping the ball on this latest piece of work – the client is angry and now we have to clean up the mess for you. I’m really disappointed and this is probably going to mean an “underperforming” rating in your next review. Look, I’ve got to head off to another meeting now, but just lastly, great job organising that team soccer game the other week, nice work.

Feedback can be one of the most important tools we can use to assess our progress and development areas. However, feedback is often poorly delivered and is only associated with the annual performance review process, meaning that it results in the whole process feeling pointless, as described in this post by the better than average blog.

One of the challenges with feedback is that people are usually too scared to give bad upward feedback to their boss. The 360 feedback process is meant to solve this, but you can’t help but feel that a lot of bosses aren’t getting the feedback they deserve. Another challenge lies in anonymous feedback. If you’re the only female in your team giving anonymous feedback to your boss, and the online feedback form contains a gender field, it’s likely you’re going to be identified.

“This person said I’m an incompetent idiot! Let’s see, it’s a female Analyst from the Perth Office in the IT team – that must be Jill”

As a leader, you’re going to be required to deliver and receive feedback, whether formal or informal. Even if you never have an annual performance review in your company, it’s likely you’ll need to deliver feedback to somebody in your team at some point.

Here are 10 ways to improve the delivery of your feedback to ensure that everybody gets the most out of it:

1. Deliver constructive feedback by being specific

Ever come across vague feedback where you were under-performing but the feedback didn’t really state in which area? Maybe it was just the general vibe. Well, you can improve your feedback by stating specific examples where you observed an issue or positive aspect and referencing them directly. There is no point in saying “you are difficult to work with” if you don’t have any evidence or examples.

2.Deliver constructive feedback by referencing company values

Sometimes you’ll come across situations where you feel that someone did something that was “off”, but you can’t pinpoint what the actual problem is. One way to attempt to solve this is to see whether your company values can be used as a reference for the feedback. Company values can sometimes be a good reference point for identifying behaviour that is unwanted and highlighting it.

3. Deliver constructive feedback by avoiding the compliment sandwich

You’ve probably heard of the compliment sandwich, in which a negative piece of feedback is positioned between two pieces of positive feedback.

This can be detrimental because you are using two positives to one negative – which can have the effect of watering down bad feedback. This can result in the feedback receiver simply not “getting it” and coming out of the meeting thinking “that wasn’t so bad!” Sometimes it’s better just to deliver bad feedback and schedule another time for the good feedback.

4. Deliver constructive feedback by verifying hearsay before passing it on

In some work environments, informal feedback about other teams and people (yes, gossip!) is thrown around with reckless abandon. When you’re working in one of these places, it’s important to attempt to verify any hearsay that you are about to pass onto somebody before doing so. If you are unable to verify it, don’t deliver it, because it could be someone simply playing politics to get what they want. The best way to get around this is using tip number 5 below…

5. If you’re not in close proximity, gather feedback by keeping in close contact with people who can provide proper information about the person

If you’re in an environment where you aren’t able to always work closely with the person you are to deliver feedback to, it’s important to keep in contact with the people who do work closely with them. Otherwise, you have no basis for accurate feedback, you’d just be playing a guessing game based on your own limited experience.

This is particularly useful if you lead a team of people who work with other business areas. It is always a great idea to keep in contact with other stakeholders that deal with your team so you get an idea of how your team is performing.

Seeking the opinions of others about the performance of those you are giving feedback to can be helpful simply to verify your own thoughts or to perhaps give cause for you to reconsider the feedback you are about to deliver. Multiple points of reference can often be more accurate than just your own.

6. Deliver constructive feedback by helping to develop an action plan or outcomes

There is no sense in delivering bad feedback that has no outcome. You need to ensure that the feedback recipient has an idea on how they could actually take steps to improve the aspect of their performance that is under question.

A model that can help do this is the Situation-Behaviour-Impact-Alternate Behaviour-Alternative Impact model or SBI-BI. It is a structured approach that calls out specific behaviour and the impact that was caused, then allows you to work with the feedback recipient to determine an alternative behaviour that may be more appropriate. This gives the receiver something to work on for next time.

7. Deliver constructive feedback by considering the positive as well as the negative

Some people don’t deliver any news unless it’s bad news. If your team excels at something, it’s important not to say “well that’s just called doing your job”. This is a poor attitude – it’s important to give positive feedback where you can rather than making the whole feedback exercise into a stressful encounter. Be sure not to make up good feedback just to deliver a compliment sandwich though!

8. Deliver constructive feedback by being honest

Come on, say what you mean. Don’t dance around the issue or fail to deliver bad feedback entirely. People need feedback to improve and to gain an awareness as to how they are being perceived. It’s definitely harder to deliver bad feedback to people more senior than you, but I’ve managed to do it successfully from time to time. The key is to appear constructive rather than petty or spiteful. It still pays to be careful though!

9. Deliver constructive feedback by staying focused

When you’re in a feedback conversation, make sure that it is clear to all attendees that this is the purpose of the meeting. If you deliver bad feedback, be prepared for an uncomfortable situation, as some people don’t respond favourably to negative reviews.

You may find yourself feeling as if you have to defend your behaviour, but if you have clearly specified the purpose you can agree to address your own feedback at another time, rather than having a two-way exchange of tit-for-tat negative feedback.

10. Deliver constructive feedback by giving it at the right time

Don’t wait until it’s too late for your team to act on your feedback. As soon as you are aware of and have confirmed it, you should really deliver it. The timing might vary depending on the situation, but the feedback recipient should ideally be given every chance to attempt to improve their performance, rather than having no idea and hearing about it in their annual review!

This is also a factor when delivering positive feedback – if you hold onto it for too long, the recipient may not even have known they were doing well and might even have suffered a downturn in their engagement levels because of the lack of feedback. It has to be timely.

Feedback is a very important aspect of many careers, whether it be in an office environment or elsewhere – being able to deliver constructive feedback not only helps build the capability of your teams, it can have a positive effect on the engagement of your team and the level of service that you provide, in any industry. Good luck in delivering your effective feedback!

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