The art of giving constructive feedback


“You have no brains,” says Buddy Ackerman, the boss from hell, slowly and clearly to ensure that his message does what he intended it to—humiliate and publicly shame his assistant, Guy. This scene from the ’94 dramedy Swimming With Sharks, with some exemplary acting by Kevin Spacey as Buddy, has long left employees thanking God for their not-so-scary bosses and bosses doing the same, thinking of every single time they have managed to keep their cool.

Image credits: Shutterstock.

We are humans, and it is only natural to err at some point. There may be times when targets are not attained, emails are not responded to and deadlines are not met. Sure enough, managers and entrepreneurs may have faced many instances when they did want to say these four words to their employees. But, of course, the social pressure of acting sane might have pulled you back if you’re a manager. Good job, we say, because there is always a better way to give feedback than criticising openly or shaming publicly, and that is called ‘constructive feedback’.

Feedback is necessary and almost inevitable at every workplace. It gives your team a clear idea about what they are doing right and what they need to do better. Constructive feedback lies somewhere between praise and criticism and it is the best kind ever because it occupies this middle ground. There is no extreme reaction, just an analysis of your team’s work, an acknowledgment of their strengths and weaknesses, and pointers about how to achieve better results.

So here are some ways that you can give your employees some useful and constructive feedback without being one of those bad-mouthed horrible bosses.

Don’t make personal remarks

Yes, there may be employees who may not be your favourite, but that doesn’t mean you attack them personally. Before you say something humiliating to an employee, think for a moment why he/she was hired. The fact that a consistently non-performing employee is still on the company’s roll says more about your inefficient hiring techniques than their productivity. So, understand that there is no point in following Buddy’s method of outright shaming. Instead, look at what has gone wrong. Detach the person from the situation and comment on the problem at hand, not at how they caused it. Suggest changes in their working style or approach that may have brought about this problem. Instead of saying, “You are so boring. You just went on and on!” after a rather ineffective presentation, try to phrase it differently. What about: “Try making your presentations shorter and more concise. Stick to the time limit and plan your ideas accordingly. That would make it more interesting and easier to follow”? There is no sugar coating here, but there is no dirty personal attack either. Explain where they went wrong and suggest ways to improve.

Put them in your shoes

Employees may not always be conscious about what they are doing wrong. They may need an external authority to point it out to them. Jennifer Winter, a career consultant who roughed it out in the corporate world for 15 years, writes in The Muse about the importance of putting your employee in the driver’s seat. She suggests that managers or bosses set the stage giving a generic example about a situation at hand and turn the tables on the same employees asking them what they would have done had they been in their boss’ shoes. “It’s empowering for anyone to be asked how she’d suggest a situation should be managed—and that’s exactly how you want your employee to feel,” she writes. “Ideally, by the end of your discussion, your employee will have identified her own challenges, and have suggested solutions she came up on her own.” How’s that for killing two birds with a single stone?

Time it right

The best feedback is that which is immediate and actionable. If your employee lags behind now, don’t wait for the next round of appraisals to let them know that they need to pull up their socks. By then, the feedback gets stale and may have little or no effect on the employee’s productivity. Delaying immediate, constructive feedback could also lead to the danger of employees turning complacent. A good practice is to have periodic and regular feedback sessions. It is best to have a one-on-one interaction rather than emailing your feedback or discussing it in front of other employees. When you do give feedback, be straightforward, concise and clear about what you expect.

According to a study conducted by the Harvard Business Review in 2014, employees actually prefer constructive criticism from their seniors to purely positive feedback. Almost 72 per cent of employees interviewed thought that appropriately delivered corrective feedback from their managers would improve their performance. So do not hold back, be open to your employees about their performance and build a team that works together for both better results for the company and individual personal growth.


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