The Art of Giving Effective Feedback

By Robin Madell (San Francisco)

“The most important thing to remember when giving effective criticism is that it is feedback, not failure. The whole reason you give criticism is to help one grow.”
Elle Kaplan,
CEO & Founding Partner,
Lexion Capital Management LLC

When it comes to workplace critiques, perhaps the only thing more challenging than receiving criticism gracefully is giving it effectively. While at first blush it may seem this is one area where it’s easier to give than to receive, providing difficult feedback to employees or peers is not for the faint of heart.

Those who are “people pleasers” may have a particularly tough time delivering news that no one wants to hear, for fear of being disliked as a result. They may therefore hold back accurate information, skewing reviews to avoid negative comments. This is a mistake, because when criticism is given badly, it can be ignored or even result in the opposite of what was intended.

The good news is, you can learn to give more effective criticism and help advance your own career at the same time. Here’s how.

Start with the “Why”

The reason to give feedback is to encourage productive behavior or to achieve a different outcome through changing a specific behavior, according to Sarah Jack, MSW. “When scripting the feedback, start with the ‘why,’” says Jack. “Why are you encouraging more of something or suggesting to make a change to something? The answer should always be a business outcome.”

Provide a Guide

An effective way to give useful criticism is to make sure it provides counseling or guidance that helps someone get to where they want to go. Author Barry Maher says that the easiest way to do that is to offer the criticism within the context of the vision you have for what the individual can become. This may include goals you’ve helped instill in them if you’re their boss—goals that encompass their hopes, dreams, and aspirations. Maher offers the following language as an example:

“Jim, we talked about what you need to do to get that promotion you want. And I’ve got to say you did an extraordinary job dealing with that legal issue yesterday. And what we need to work on next to help get you where you want to go is [insert criticism, counseling, guidance here].”

Focus on Feedback

Semantics can make a difference when it comes to review time. Instead of viewing your role as a manager as one that involves criticism, Ann Latham, president of Uncommon Clarity, Inc., suggests focusing on feedback instead. “Criticism involves judgment, censure, disapproval, condemnation,” says Latham. “Feedback is information. We all need information, whether good news or bad, to learn, grow, and improve.”

Sherianna Boyle, author of Powered by Me, adds that criticism tends to be more future-focused, which may include a tone of wrong-doing, as in “You need to,” or “You really should.” She therefore prefers the term “guidance from the now” when it comes to constructive criticism. “Guidance from the now directs individuals from who they are, as opposed to who you would like them to be,” explains Boyle. “It utilizes language rooted in the present moment such as ‘consider,’ or ‘play with these numbers.’”

Put Money in the Bank

Negative feedback can be easier to swallow when it’s preceded by a compliment. Danica Kombol, founding executive and managing partner of woman-owned social media firm Everywhere, explains her rule of thumb: you have to put money in the bank before you take it out. “When offering any kind of criticism, I try to start with a positive (money in the bank) and focus on the areas where my employees are succeeding before I talk about areas that need improvement,” she says.

Psychologist Raquel Ferns Lefebvre, takes a similar approach: “When I give feedback, I start by letting my supervisees know that I respect them enough to talk to them directly about the issue and that part of my role as their supervisor is to help them be successful,” says Lefebvre. “I then focus on what they are doing right, because acknowledging their strengths makes it easier for them to then hear about areas they need to improve upon.”

Coach Poor Performers

Giving constructive criticism can help advance your career. Why? Because employees want to work on a winning team, and a winning team helps you shine as a manager. To create that winning team, Leigh Steere, co-founder, Managing People Better, LLC suggests that you need to coach poor performers so they are not dragging down the team’s performance.

“Employees want to grow professionally, and they can’t do that without honest feedback,” says Steere. “Employees need straight-talk about their performance, even if the message temporarily stings. When you help employees grow, they will remember that forever and may be in a position to help you one day.”

Time It Right

Joy Soudant, who has a background as a corporate recruiter and HR manager, says that when it comes to giving feedback, it is all about timing. She maintains that when employees are approached at the wrong time, they often ignore the feedback, or might get angry and completely disregard what you’ve told them. They may even become more critical of you as their boss.

“Picture it – you are speed-walking down the hallway to get to your office and get started on your to-dos and your boss stops you in front of a small group of your co-workers while you are wearing your coat, holding your purse, and balancing a large coffee in your hand,” says Soudant. “She suddenly decides it’s time to give you some constructive criticism on your last project or sales deal. How would you respond in this situation? Most employees would feel overwhelmed, unprepared, distracted, defensive, and most importantly, not in a position to be the best listener.”

Get Specific

When you give one of your direct reports feedback, specificity is key. “You can’t expect your staff to be psychic – explain clearly what the issue was and how they can do better the next time,” says Soudant. For example, she suggests asking employees how they learn best and providing them with feedback in that manner.

“If she is visual, get out a whiteboard to share your feedback,” says Soudant. “If she learns well with auditory feedback, offer to role play with her to show her how she could have handled herself better. Be creative and don’t be afraid to try different styles of giving criticism with different women on your team. Just like your resume, you should customize your approach.”