Providing Constructive Feedback

By Greg Niemi . March 7, 2014

Providing Constructive Feedback

Why do we have such a tough time providing constructive feedback when people actually crave it? 

I see leaders struggle with this as much as managers.  It is a natural aversion to conflict from the desire to be liked. 

Management by avoidance does not work.  This is as true in our personal lives as our business lives. 

What follows are a few tips which have been helpful to me: 

  • Timing:  Timing of constructive feedback, whether positive or negative, is everything. 

A management theory which has always stuck with me is “behavior is most paired to its proximate consequence”.  

If you want a positive behavior to repeat, praise immediately (or as close as possible) to the positive behavior to reinforce.  If you want a behavior to change, provide constructive feedback immediate (or close as possible to the undesired behavior).  A good rule of thumb for timing is within 24 hours.  

  • Obtain Permission: If it is hard for you to broach the subject ask for permission to provide feedback. 

Some openers are:  “May I provide you with some feedback you may be interested in” or “may I share something that has been on my mind” or “I lost sleep last night thinking about [you], would you like to know what that was about”.  

It is unlikely for anyone to say “no, I’m not interested in your feedback”. 

Furthermore, ask for their help in solving the problem.  Ask for their ideas and suggestions on how the behavior can be improved.  Asking, versus telling, is very empowering, non-condescending and empathetic. 

  • Specificity:  As we know, simply saying “good job” or “bad job” is not enough.  

We need to say what we really liked PLUS why we liked it.  Or conversely, what we didn’t like AND why. 

The what is the actual behavior and the why is the benefit(s) or consequence(s) of the behavior you are desiring to have repeated or changed. 

  • Shoot straight:  Clarity is so important.  No beating around the bush by sandwiching it between niceties.  

What has worked especially well for me is to ask for permission to shoot straight: 

“Would you like me to shoot straight or sugarcoat it …” 

I have yet for anyone to ask for it to be sugarcoated even though they may want it to be by the nature of my question.  This opens the door to shoot straight and once open then do.  A good friend of mine has said “the price of clarity is the risk of insult”. 

Providing constructive feedback is an age old problem whether between business partners, a board member to a company leader, manager to an employee, a parent and a child and vice versa. 

I trust you will find these tips as helpful as I have.  

Greg Niemi

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