Offering Constructive Feedback That Really Works

Giving an employee feedback in a way that can improve performance — and doesn’t prompt a negative reaction — isn’t always an easy process. Some small-business owners avoid it altogether, in the hopes that the worker’s unproductive behavior will somehow correct itself. But that rarely happens, and choosing not to deal with the situation can lead to more problems down the road.

The most effective feedback is objective (based on facts, not opinions or beliefs) and should combine positive and negative input. Of course, positive feedback is easier to convey and usually welcomed by the employee. The thing to remember about negative feedback is that it’s not meant to criticize an individual, but rather describe the behavior he or she exhibits that you want to change. It’s what a person does, not who he or she is, that’s up for discussion.

Here are six tips for giving an employee feedback that can influence his or her behavior.

1. Have a plan. Give some thought to what you want to say before having a discussion with your employee. Going in unprepared can result in you saying the wrong thing, giving a mistaken impression, or completely failing to convey your intended message.

2. Choose the right time and place. The ideal moment for offering constructive feedback is as soon as possible after noting a particular problem. Memories tend to get fuzzy too long after the fact. The sooner you engage in a discussion, the faster your employee can improve her performance.

3. Start on a high note. Lead with something positive about your employee’s performance. He’ll usually be more open to areas where improvement is needed if he knows that you’re pleased with other aspects of his work.

4. Be specific. Just as complimenting an employee for doing “a great job” is too vague to have value, generalized feedback about perceived shortcomings (such as “I’d like to see more of a ‘team attitude’ in the future”) is unlikely to have the desired effect. What do you want the employee to do differently? What action steps can she take to improve?

5. Focus on behaviors, not intentions. Questioning why someone did something ends up focusing on motives or intentions, which are irrelevant to employee performance. This also tends to make people defensive. Your goal should be to describe what the worker did wrong — the specific actions that caused a particular problem — and what he can do to prevent similar issues in the future.

6. Be mindful of your tone. No one likes to be scolded, so talking down to an employee is unlikely to encourage the changes you’d like to see. Ideally, your tone of voice should be calm and respectful, making it easier for the worker to hear what you’re saying. Avoid providing too much feedback all at once, too. Give her a chance to absorb a few key points and think through what she needs to change.

The process of offering feedback involves sharing information. Offering advice is different and sounds more like an “order” to the recipient. Employees should come away from your feedback discussions motivated to change their behavior on their own.

About Lee Polevoi

Lee Polevoi is an award-winning freelance copywriter and editor and a former Senior Writer for Vistage International, a global membership organization of chief executive officers. He writes frequently on issues and challenges faced by U.S. small businesses.
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