Sixty-three percent of employees say a failure to recognize achievements keeps their leaders from being effective. And 39% singled out their managers’ failure to provide constructive criticism.
A statistic cited on “Ideacast” podcast also reflects how important both positive feedback and constructive criticism are to employees. When asked what type of feedback had been most helpful in their careers, 53% of employees said praise and recognition, while 47% said corrective feedback.
Workers are clearly hungry for feedback, but providing it can be a challenge for managers. Sometimes feedback seems like just one more thing to fit into an already busy schedule. And since negative feedback can involve difficult conversations, it’s easy to put off. Managers might also be unsure of the right words and the right approach to inspire an employee to improve.
Luckily, there’s plenty of advice out there to help you be more effective in delivering both positive and negative feedback. Here are some of our favorite tips.
Don’t put off feedback
Make both praise and criticism part of your regular interactions with employees. They shouldn’t have to wait until their formal reviews to find out how they’re doing.
Giving frequent feedback takes a lot of the emotional charge out of the conversation when you have to correct an employee. Also, it’s easier for employees to process and take action on your feedback when it’s regular instead of cumulative. In other words, it’s more effective to talk about specific aspects of their performance, whether good or bad, when they come up vs. saving up a year’s worth of feedback for an annual review.
Give positive feedback generously
“Feedback” isn’t synonymous with “criticism.” Praise is an important part of helping your employees develop. Studies show that the amount of positive feedback you give should be at least equal to negative feedback. The recommendation from Harvard Business Review is even stronger: “Managers should bestow their employees with praise generously, publicly, and at every opportunity — especially at the culmination of projects.”
Forbes also advocates delivering positive feedback publically. That way, the employee not only enjoys your praise; he also gets to savor additional compliments and congratulations from other colleagues.
Another recommendation is to keep positive feedback separate from negative feedback. That runs counter to the old approach of “sandwiching” a criticism between two compliments. As Forbes points out, the recipient will probably overlook or ignore you positive remarks. If you need to give both positive and negative feedback about how an employee handled a particular project, don’t criticize at the same time you deliver praise.
A final point is that giving vague, nonspecific praise — like firing off an email that just says “Good job!” — doesn’t deliver any benefit because the recipient isn’t likely to take it seriously. It’s better to be specific, identifying both what the employee did and its benefit. For example, “When you pointed out there was a better way we could handle work schedules, you saved the company money and helped everyone feel less stressed. Thank you!”
Prepare carefully before delivering negative feedback
If you dread giving constructive criticism, it might help to remember that most employees — especially your most skilled or experienced team members, a study shows —actually want to hear criticism if it helps them improve.
A similar, recommendation is to remind yourself of your ultimate goal — helping the employee develop — any time you give feedback. When you have this higher purpose in mind, it’s easier to avoid being too harsh and critical, or, on the other hand, too vague and indirect because you’re worried about hurting the employee’s feelings.
Before you meet with an employee to deliver difficult feedback, think through what you want to say. This will help you express your message in a way that helps the employee understand and act on it. You can even practice or rehearse with a friend or (when appropriate) a colleague.
Head off defensiveness
Negative feedback can stir up strong emotions. According to a study, employees react to negative interactions with their bosses six times more strongly than they do positive interactions. Difficult feedback even activates the threat center in our brains.
When you deliver criticism in a calm, respectful and compassionate way, you can defuse an employee’s defensiveness and make it more likely that she’ll follow your suggestions.
First, give criticism face to face or, if that’s impossible, over the phone. Don’t give it via text or email. The feedback conversation should happen privately between you and the employee so that he won’t feel embarrassed in front of his colleagues.
One easy tip to help an employee handle criticism is simply prefacing what you say with “Let me provide you with some feedback.” HBR says this gives the employee a moment to prepare for what you’re about to say. That helps her access the calm, rational part of her brain instead of the more emotional side.
Your tone also matters a lot. A tone of concern can help the employee hear your message. “Anger, frustration, disappointment, and the ever-popular sarcasm”, however, can make the employee shut down.
Be specific and seek solutions
We’ve talked about how to deliver criticism. Now let’s dig a little bit more into what you should actually say. Like positive feedback, negative feedback is more effective when you’re specific. Talk about behaviors you’ve observed and how they affect your business, not your employee’s overall character.
When you’re giving negative feedback, take the discussion beyond the initial criticism to start focusing on possible solutions. You can even ask the employee for suggestions on how she thinks the situation should be managed. This helps the employee leave your conversation feeling empowered instead of diminished — which is what feedback is all about.