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How to deliver constructive feedback

If you're a manager, then that means your core responsibility is to bring out the best performance in your team. So, just how important is giving constructive feedback to your people, and how should you approach it? Timely, honest two-way feedback is absolutely key to the performance, career progression and engagement of your employees. We look at some of the reasons why.

Here's a scenario: Imagine you're driving to an important client meeting in Manchester. About 30 minutes into your drive you pass a sign, "Welcome to Liverpool." Clearly, you've gone the wrong way, but what do you do?

Firstly, swear! Then, once the red mist fades, you'll pull over and get the Sat-Nav on, and head for the bright lights of the M62 motorway. Or in other words, you react to the information given by the sign. And that, everyone, is the textbook purpose of feedback. It's all about reacting and learning from what we do. That way, you'll be able to your shape future actions and reap greater outcomes.

Feedback and experience are essential to human learning

Just how important is constructive feedback? Well, it's so incredibly vital that it's always been key to human existence!

Evolutionary psychology points to feedback as one of the key tools that helped humans learn, adapt and survive back in the early days of man. Understanding what berries were safe to eat, what a lion's footprint looked like as well as what materials worked well for maintaining a fire or building a shelter all relied on feedback and learnings from previous attempts. Procreation too, but we'll leave that for another day!

In our always-on 21st century lives, more so than ever before, feedback is all around us. Be it our smartwatch letting us know how many steps short we are for our daily target or our cars beeping fanatically because we've dared to stray within a barge-poles length of another parked vehicle, technological advances mean we can receive feedback almost by the minute across a multitude of every-day, modern-man activities.

How important is constructive feedback at your workplace?

We've discussed in the past about the importance of communication within the workplace. Yes, while feedback is certainly a form of communication, it is its own beast and equally vital to a successful, efficient business.

However, when you think about work, you might notice a lack of frequent constructive feedback. Workplace feedback has two primary focuses in most cases:

  1. To get an employee back on track when they are performing in a way less than that expected.
  2. To congratulate and shine a light on better than expected performance.  

Yet we know from a multitude of research sources that a culture of effective feedback at work can boost a number of employee metrics. These are simply as a consequence of the actual process of giving and receiving feedback, including:

  • Employee engagement
  • Individual productivity
  • Affective commitment

As Gallup's 2019 findings show, quantity isn't everything. In their study, a third of those satisfied with feedback quantity were unsatisfied with its actual content. They reported that the feedback they got wasn't useful for improving performance and professional growth. If feedback isn't meaningful, it's just going to be annoying static in their ears.

But Gallup's more recent findings from March 2021 show that meaningful feedback makes a stark difference. Employees were asked if they had gotten meaningful feedback in the past week. Those who agreed they had were found to be four times more likely to be engaged than other participants.

Why do we struggle to give constructive feedback at work?

Ah if only there was one simple answer we could offer up. Alas, there are a host of reasons why we might not be giving feedback at work.

Workloads are stacked for everyone

Yes, it's a rubbish reason, but people are busy. Interestingly no more so than previous generations according to research, despite a general consensus in workers to the contrary. And remember, managers, are only as human as the rest of us.

We are neurologically wired to avoid sharing feedback

An interesting study in 2018 by New York University found that when asked to give feedback, or even receive, our bodies undergo a significant response & namely that our heart rates elevate and the amount we perspire increases. Both responses are associated with our natural response to fear or anxiety.

We really, really don't like giving negative feedback

That aversive reaction to feedback cuts both ways. It's not just employees that have a stress reaction to bad feedback. It's natural to feel anxious and a little guilty when you have to tell someone they aren't doing a stellar job.

We worry that constructive feedback will demotivate employees

It might seem like a fair reason to say that passing on some negative feedback may well have a negative impact on a staff member's morale. Fear of killing your employee's motivation can be a powerful deterrent, but you need to work through it. And, of course, keeping morale high is a top priority.

But chances are, your employee already has some idea of their strengths and weaknesses. But they don't always know how to ask for help improving in specific areas. And don't forget that some people have an ingrained belief that pointing out their own flaws is asking for trouble.

The processes and opportunities for feedback are limited

Many, many companies are still stuck in the same old routine of annual performance reviews with the occasional employee survey thrown in as being their primary feedback strategy. Sure, alongside this you get progressive managers who will offer out 1-2-1s when they have the time but this puts a lot of pressure on too few (in our view) managers out there.

Developing a habitual feedback process and giving your employees the right tool in which to partake in that cycle is absolutely key to create a feedback-focussed culture. After all, practice makes perfect!

We don't know how to give constructive feedback

Without question, there is an art to being a good feedback giver (and receiver for that matter!). It is absolutely fair in our opinion for someone to request and therefore be given training in how to be more effective when it comes to feedback, and there is a multitude of techniques.

How to improve constructive feedback in your business

We'll be writing many more articles over the coming months on the topic of how you can improve feedback to become more efficient and impactful, but to whet your appetite, here are a few key tips and a practical exercise:

  • Make feedback a regularly occurring process to build habits
  • Give feedback in a timely manner to improve impact
  • Open up feedback to become a two-way process to develop all staff
  • Encourage honesty and ownership of all feedback to make insight actionable
  • Be specific to really target strengths and weaknesses
  • Avoid negative language to keep morale high
  • Focus on solutions to chase success

Here's an experiment into the world of feedback you can perform. Why not create an email you send out to your team/department/company once a week? Use it to encourage the mutual exchange of feedback within your staff base. Simply ask these 4 basic questions and see what response you get and what insights that information gives you over time:

  • What has gone well for you this week?
  • Have you faced any challenges this week?
  • Do you require any specific support from us, e.g. training, tools or coaching?
  • Have any of your colleagues gone above and beyond to help you this week?

Feedback is best when it's mutually exchanged. Instead of employees feeling like kids being told off by a teacher, feedback should be two people finding the best way to support each other. Just don't forget that, if you take in feedback from your staff, you need to follow through. Otherwise, the conversation just becomes another pointless formality they'll want to ignore.