Earning

The right way to give constructive feedback at work: It 'should always come from a place of caring'

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Irina | Twenty20
Key Points
  • Workers often underestimate others' desire for constructive feedback and therefore don't give it, according to a new study.
  • Feedback can be helpful for those receiving it, but you must deliver it in the right way at the right time.
  • "If you're providing constructive feedback, your intent is to help the other person, rather than hurt or embarrass them," one expert says.

Telling a direct report or a co-worker when they have done something wrong, or could have done something better, can be awkward. Even just the potential for conflict can be anxiety-inducing, which is why previous research has shown many workers don't like to give feedback.

However, your colleague who recently floundered during a presentation might actually value your thoughts, according to a new study published by the American Psychological Association.

Five experiments were conducted for the study where participants were paired together and one had to say how much they wanted feedback and the other had to say how much they wanted to give feedback. In each experiment, participants underestimated their partner's desire for constructive feedback and therefore didn't give it.

The key word here is "constructive." The goal of constructive feedback is create a positive outcome by providing useful advice or helpful suggestions for the future.

Giving those kind of even helpful notes at the wrong time or in the wrong way, though, can leave the recipient feeling unmotivated, experts say. Here is how to give effective feedback.

Constructive vs. unconstructive feedback

Feedback can be the "greatest gift" a manager can give, says Amanda Augustine, career expert at TopResume.

"Constructive feedback or criticism should always come from a place of caring," she says. "If you're providing constructive feedback, your intent is to help the other person, rather than hurt or embarrass them."

Constructive feedback often consists of specific examples when you've seen the person make a mistake and offers suggestions for improvement. Unconstructive feedback doesn't provide solutions and is not specific.

Constructive feedback or criticism should always come from a place of caring.
Amanda Augustine
career expert at TopResume

"Destructive feedback usually leaves the employee feeling defeated without understanding exactly what they're doing wrong or what steps they could take to improve," she says. "This type of feedback is usually very vague [...] and doesn't provide the employee with the specifics they'd need."

Unconstructive feedback might sounds something like, "You're not meeting my expectations," "Your work is below-average," or "You need to do better," she says.

Avoid certain phrases 'that might imply blame'

Even if your intent is to help, communicating that can be challenging. The words you pick matter and should offer "encouragement," says Louisa Tatum, career services manager at The New York Public Library,

"Consider avoiding any words or phrases that might imply blame," she says. That could include terms like:

  • You should have ...
  • If I were you ...
  • You're always ...
  • This has been an issue for a while ...

Cushion your feedback with positive reinforcement, she suggests. For example, you can says: "I think the strategy or project that you developed for 'X' was superb, but how can we make this even better next time?"

Give feedback at the right time

If the issue is minor, you could wait until a one-on-one to offer feedback, Augustine says. If it's more important, you might act with more urgency.

"Feedback is best given shortly after you've observed a behavior or event that requires guidance," Augustine says. "Don't wait a month after a bad incident to broach the subject with your colleague, staff member, or even your supervisor."

Feedback is best given shortly after you've observed a behavior or event that requires guidance.
Amanda Augustine
career expert at Top Resume

However, make sure you're in the right headspace to have the conversation. "Don't give any feedback when you are upset about something that has gone wrong, because it can distort the message, from constructive to being perceived as negative," she says.

Take a beat, write down your thoughts and remember that this feedback is meant to help improve future behavior, not berate someone for what happened in the past.

"Remember, success in the workplace is a team effort," Tatum says. "If the feedback is spot on and, collectively, solutions to weaknesses are developed, then everyone wins."

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