Just as a plant needs sunlight and water, our teams need support and effective feedback to grow personally and professionally. As leaders, it’s our responsibility to provide our teams with the tools to aid them in their ongoing development. However, many leaders struggle with providing meaningful feedback to their teams.
This struggle may stem from a lack of confidence, negative past experiences, some form of personal baggage or a lack of training. No matter the reason for the discomfort, it’s vital to overcome it for the sake of our teams. Without this tool in our arsenals, we will never reach our full potential as leaders.
Destructive vs. Constructive Feedback
The first step in understanding how to provide effective feedback is knowing what “effective” means in that context. The term “constructive criticism” is often thrown around inaccurately to describe situations where someone harshly provided a team member with some “hard truths”. Many times, this involves shifting blame for a short falling to that team member in a toxic way.
Healthy work environments require an understanding between destructive feedback and constructive feedback. Tearing into a team member without offering solutions or support is far more damaging than it could ever be helpful. Destructive feedback often involves high emotions on both sides, vague accusations of wrongdoing, and a greater focus on what they did wrong instead of how they can improve.
Constructive feedback, however, offers support to the team member and an opportunity for them to grow. It requires greater thought before the conversation, but over time helps them evolve as a professional and can help bring your team together.
How to Use Constructive Feedback
Now that we’ve differentiated constructive and destructive feedback, let’s discuss how to apply it practically. There’s no exact formula for approaching difficult conversations, but here are a few tips that may help you navigate them.
Check Your Motivation
Before giving feedback, you should first ask yourself what you’re hoping to accomplish through the conversation with your team member. It may be easy to say, “I want to address this performance issue,” or, “Our policy requires that I talk to them about this,” but effective feedback has a much higher purpose than that.
The best leaders are motivated by a genuine desire to help their employees. This motivation allows us to shift out of our comfort zone and initiate difficult conversations. Holding back or shrinking from the issue won’t help them, but it could stunt their future growth.
If they aren’t meeting our expectations, they won’t know unless we tell them. And if they don’t know, how can they possibly improve? The answer is: They can’t. Our motivation should be an outcome of growth. Think back to what you want to accomplish: “I want them to leave the conversation knowing that I want them to succeed, and this is an area where they need to grow in order to succeed in this role.”
Be Prepared, Pointed & Specific
Go into the conversation knowing exactly what you need to cover. It’s tempting to beat around the bush, especially if it’s an uncomfortable topic, but the most helpful thing you can do is be direct. “Protecting” their feelings or ego only serves to add confusion to a tense situation for both parties, potentially detracting from the seriousness of the issue at hand.
This is a situation where coming into the conversation prepared with specific examples of behavior or performance is incredibly helpful. This doesn’t mean, however, that this is an opportunity to allow emotions to run rampant through the discussion. Objectivity is key here; this isn’t a personal attack on them, it’s an opportunity for their improvement. Growth won’t come from vague generalities, so get specific and speak candidly.
When you leave the room, they should understand what the issue is, what your expectations are for them, what they need to do to meet those expectations, and what the ramifications will be if those expectations aren’t met. If they don’t understand those things, your feedback wasn’t as effective as it needed to be.
Continue Your Support
As anyone who has tried to alter a habit can attest, changing a behavior is never a one-and-done issue. There will always be room for backsliding, falling into ruts or developing unhelpful habits. Go into the conversation with realistic expectations of the outcome, knowing that your team member will need continued support after your talk. Bigger changes may require more follow-up than smaller ones.
Ongoing coaching and supportive conversations are helpful for continuous improvement. This means providing praise and encouragement when there’s clear effort and improvement. For behavioral changes, praise and affirmation are like rocket fuel, focusing us and motivating us to stay on track. In the end, it’s a much more powerful catalyst for lasting change than threats and fear.
Providing effective feedback can be uncomfortable and challenging, but these moments offer incredible opportunities to help our team members flourish. As leaders, it’s our responsibility to summon the courage to facilitate the hard conversations that can lead to growth. With the right knowledge and tools we have the power to effect lasting change and continuous improvement in our organizations.