The ability to give feedback empathically and constructively is an important tool in many situations. If you are newly a boss, telling coworkers something that is bothering you about their behaviour, or wanting to talk to friends or family about an issue, framework your feedback with these do's and don'ts in mind.
Getting feedback, as you might know yourself, can trigger a stress response. Your goal in giving feedback is to not only be heard by the recipient but to open a dialogue with them about the issue.
Never surprise the person you are giving the feedback to. Once you identify something you want to discuss, set up a face-to-face meeting as soon as possible. Or if you are virtual, set up a one-on-one meeting. Let them know what you want to talk about.
“Aisha, I wanted to catch up with you and discuss last week’s all-hands meeting. Is tomorrow afternoon a good time for me to schedule a call with you and discuss some feedback I have?”
If your first goal is to be heard and your second goal is to establish a conversation with the person receiving your feedback, your third goal is to establish trust. Time and place are very important. It can be hard to muster up the courage to discuss something, but waiting only makes it harder for the person receiving the feedback to remember what was done and to identify with your need for change. One thing many bad bosses do is wait for the annual review. They hide behind the formality of it to protect themselves and to avoid discomfort. The annual review should never be a surprise - nor annual. If you are a manager/leader, give feedback more frequently. And if you have feedback for a coworker, do it as close to the incident as possible to have a good outcome.
And doing it in private will earn much more trust. Never give feedback publicly in a meeting, hallway or where the person receiving it can be embarrassed or feel uncomfortable responding. While email is private, it is not a dialogue and engenders defensiveness. Receiving written feedback feels very final and there's no room for discussion. Additionally, tone can be easily interpreted incorrectly.
It can be very tempting to give them an example of something that happened in your life or that you did and how you did it better. Equally relief inducing for you giving the feedback is comparing them to someone at work and showing how their behaviour is better. Neither of these is helpful to the person receiving the feedback. It actually makes them more defensive and less likely to find middle ground. Distinguish the person from their behavior.
Instead of telling the other person that they are irresponsible, provide the dates when they have come in late. Rather than saying they are disrespectful, reference how they roll their eyes and sigh. Instead of saying you want them to be more of a "team player," explain the specific behavior that you expect.
Avoid statements like "you always or you never". Say something about their actions, not about them as a person (for example, telling someone that you noticed some errors in a recent report, so they should take the time to proofread their work going forward versus telling them that they lack attention to detail). Use "I" messages, like “I’ve noticed” or “I’m concerned about,” rather than "you" messages, like “you always” or “you never.” Keep your emotions out of it, as they can derail your message.
Now that you have assessed the situation to increase trust, you can begin the conversation with specific feedback. Frame it with the outcome in mind, and prepare the recipient for what's about to be said: "I need to tell you something that may be hard for you to hear." Tell the person what their behavior was and what the impact was. "The presentation you created was really good and helped me make the decision on go/no go for the project" or "The customer wasn't happy with your response time on the project and it is affecting their loyalty to us which will affect revenue". How you make this statement is very important. Spend some time thinking about your delivery and their possible response.
Present your take on the situation and show that you are willing to find solutions together with them. You might not be aware of everything that’s going on in your employee’s life; so instead of saying “you’re never on time to meetings,” start by saying, “I’ve noticed that in the past few weeks, you’ve been arriving late to our weekly meetings. I was wondering if you could help me understand what’s making you late, and if there’s anything I could help you with (like changing the time of the meeting)?"
Balance the positive and negative. Have a list of things they do well in addition to the feedback. In the customer example above, you might remember another customer that has good feedback or the rest of the department. "I know you have a good relationship with customer B. You have worked hard on that." "Everyone in the department says that you are open-minded and easy to work with". "Can you tell me more about what happened in this situation with Customer A?"
After making your statement about the situation, open up the dialogue by asking for their input.
What do you think about that? How do you feel about what I’ve just shared with you? This is what I think we should do. But I’d like to hear your thoughts on it. Could you help me better understand what’s happening?Do you think I’ve made a fair assessment here? How do you think we can improve on this?
Keep your voice calm, add inflection to the end of the sentence not at the beginning where it can sound judgmental. And then listen to them. In fact at this point, it would be good to use listening skills to really understand where they are coming from. Feedback is never a dump and run. Nor is it short, especially the first time you and the receiver have been through it. When you set up the time and place, make sure you give yourself time and headspace to hear the other person out. They may get defensive. Just keep asking open-ended, clarifying questions. Don't interpret meaning to what they are saying. If you find yourself judging, ask an open-ended question, a clarify statement, or simply restate what they have just said to you. While you might be thinking in your head - "suck it up, the customer is always right". Instead ask and really listen to the response - "Am I understanding correctly, you feel customer A is being unreasonable?" "Did you also say you were having a tough day at home when you talked to customer A?"
After discussing the issue, give actionable recommendations for improvement. There’s nothing worse than receiving feedback that gives you no clue on how to improve. Follow the description of the situation with actionable suggestions on how the employee can improve. An actionable recommendation is clear, tangible, easily put into practice and time constrained.
For example, saying “you need to give better presentations” only leaves the recipient confused and demoralized. Instead, opt for something like, “to improve your presentation skills, focus on maintaining eye contact with the audience and speaking more slowly,” or “I understand that right now is an especially busy time, and you have a lot on your plate. To avoid missing deadlines, I think it’d be best for you to tackle your tasks in order of urgency. I’d be happy to help you if anything is unclear.”
Feedback done well can actually greatly improve employee morale. If you are a leader or manager, think of ways and times you can give positive feedback. And make sure you follow the dos and don'ts for giving constructive/negative feedback. If the person leaves feeling safe, heard and clear on next steps, it can greatly improve their relationship with you and their productivity at work.