Constructive Feedback:

A Manager’s Guide To Giving Feedback That People Actually Want

Despite the fear, anxiety, or discomfort those in leadership may feel towards giving constructive feedback, employees today crave it. To ease some of those feelings and build one’s confidence, check out this guide to learn how feedback contributes to the manager-employee relationship, pitfalls to avoid giving destructive feedback, and ways to navigate the reactions employees commonly have.

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As the bestselling author of the book, Freakonomics, Steven Levitt once said, “The key to learning is feedback. It is nearly impossible to learn anything without it.” Yet, the thought of delivering constructive feedback can keep many up at night. In a survey of over 7,000 people, it was found that 44% of managers find delivering constructive feedback stressful or difficult, with 21% altogether avoiding it.

Even with our own fears, anxiety, and discomfort in giving constructive feedback, those around us want - and need it. Most people would rather know where they stand and fix the issue than wait for it to escalate to the point where there are consequences all because someone was afraid to give them feedback. This was highlighted in a Harvard Business Review survey, where 92% of the respondents agreed with the assertion, “Negative feedback if delivered appropriately, is effective at improving performance.”

Delivering feedback is foundational in coaching employees and building the manager-employee relationship. The goal of coaching employees is to uncover and develop their potential, and development takes place through constructive feedback. 

Gallup describes the benefits of the manager-employee coaching relationship as, “Coaches understand, leverage, and get great satisfaction from deploying the unique talents and strengths of each employee. Great managers are always developing and positioning talent to maximize outcomes, and they get extraordinary results from it: Workers who know and use their strengths average 10% to 19% increased sales and 14% to 29% increased profit, among other bottom-line results.”

The value that comes from meaningful conversations with employees that go beyond project updates cannot be dismissed. It is the frequent conversations on skill development, performance, and ongoing feedback that help employees see the progress they’re making in improved results and goal attainment.

In the following guide, we examine: what is constructive feedback, why it is important in the manager-employee relationship, how to avoid destructive feedback, best practices for delivering constructive feedback, and how to navigate the reactions that may arise when delivering feedback. Let’s jump in.

Constructive Feedback Definition

Constructive feedback is when a leader assesses the performance or behavior of an employee against a defined standard and provides them with actionable insights or directions so they can improve or take the next step. Constructive feedback should always be rooted in evidence, delivered without judgment, and come from a place of genuine helpfulness.

Importance of Constructive Feedback

While you may dread giving feedback to employees, the fact is, employees crave it. So much so, that one Gallup survey found people would prefer to get any feedback over no feedback at all, even if that feedback is criticism. Moreover, employees want to be more connected with their leader than any previous generation, thus allowing them increased access to timely and relevant feedback. To be specific, 60 percent of Gen Z respondents want multiple check-ins from their manager during the week; of those, 40 percent want the interaction with their boss to be daily or several times each day. 

Clearly, there is an appetite for constructive feedback and coaching among employees, and it’s up to you as the leader to deliver. Besides the clear appetite for feedback, there are a number of other reasons why constructive feedback is important, including:

SHOWS YOU CARE AND BUILDS TRUST WITH EMPLOYEES

 

Shows you care and builds trust with employees

A Harvard Business Review survey found that while 58% of people trust strangers, only 42% trust their own boss. Delivering honest, actionable feedback is just one way to build trust among employees if you approach it with a genuine desire to help an employee and have their best interests at heart.

ENCOURAGES TWO-WAY COMMUNICATION V2

 

Encourages two-way communication

Feedback conversations are an opportunity to ask questions, listen, and collaborate with an employee on an actionable solution. Employees crave these types of interactions with their leaders because when employees feel their voice is heard, they are 4.6 times more likely to perform their best at work. Conversely,  it was found that 33% of employees said a lack of open, honest communication has the most negative impact on employee morale.

SUPPORTS AN INDIVIDUAL’S DEVELOPMENT AND PROMOTES ONGOING LEARNING

 

Supports an individual’s development and promotes ongoing learning

When employees fall into a repetitive and comfortable routine at work, it can cause their growth and development to become stagnant. But, as the saying goes, “You don’t grow when you’re comfortable.” So, if you want your employees to grow and reach their full potential, then constructive feedback is crucial as it breaks the monotony of the job and challenges them to think outside the box or take a different approach than they would normally, thus contributing to their growth and development. 

REDUCES ERRORS

 

Reduces errors

No one wants to repeat the same mistake over and over. But what if they don’t know they're making a mistake? As a leader, it’s up to you to provide your employees with constructive feedback if they are repeatedly making mistakes. You want to make them aware of the mistake, communicate the consequences of it, and then collaborate on a solution to ensure the mistake doesn’t happen again. More often than not, this provides a sense of relief to both parties. 

PROMOTES SELF-AWARENESS

 

Promotes self-awareness

Providing constructive feedback is an opportunity to help an employee see how their actions impacted a person or project, for better or worse. By identifying these blind spots, which they may have otherwise been unaware of, you encourage an employee to become more self-aware of their mindset and behaviors.

ELIMINATES AMBIGUITY AND PROVIDES MUCH-APPRECIATED CLARITY

 

Eliminates ambiguity and provides much-appreciated clarity

It shouldn’t take an annual performance review for an employee to know where they stand with you in terms of their performance. In fact, if you are providing your employees with constructive feedback regularly, then they should know on any given day of the year exactly where they stand. That’s because constructive feedback eliminates the guesswork and replaces it with clear, actionable insights.

The importance of constructive feedback

 

Constructive vs. Destructive Feedback

When it comes time to give your employees feedback, your intentions should be to build the person up, not to knock them down. In other words, your feedback should be constructive, not destructive. 

Constructive feedback comes from a place of helping and support. You want to see the person succeed and feel they can if they apply your insights or directions. 

Destructive feedback, on the other hand, makes sweeping statements without providing anything actionable. It may make the person feel so miserable about themselves and their work that they disengage. Unfortunately, this is the type of feedback people fear and what ultimately gives feedback a bad name.

To help you differentiate between the two types of feedback, here are a few examples of constructive vs. destructive feedback statements:

Constructive feedback examples

  • “I like where this is going, but can we…”

  • “It really impressed me when you…”

  • “Here’s what worked for me when I found myself in a similar situation”

  • “In the future, you could try… What do you think?”

  • “Let’s brainstorm some strategies you can implement to…”

  • “This was good because… but could be even better if…”

Destructive feedback examples

  • “This isn’t the way we do things around here”

  • “You have no idea what you’re doing”

  • “This is wrong”

  • “You’re putting (task, project, objective, goal, company) in jeopardy”

  • “You need to start over”

  • “That didn’t work”

How To Ensure Your Feedback is Constructive

No matter how hard constructive feedback is to deliver, it’s a cornerstone of effective leadership and imperative to the success of those in your charge. But, how exactly do you ensure the feedback you have for someone is constructive? How do you ensure it supports the overall work you are doing coaching employees? We recommend starting with the following best practices. From there, it will take time, experience, and practice to become comfortable and confident in your ability to deliver constructive feedback.

 

Check Yourself

Before you deliver feedback to an employee, always ask yourself, is this helpful or hurtful? Are you coming with the intent to help and develop, or are you acting out of frustration? Take the time to be mindful and reflective of your own mindset or motives before jumping into a feedback conversation.

 

Reflect on your role in the situation

Take some time to think if your actions (or inaction) contributed to the situation. Were your expectations, communication, and boundaries clear enough? Before giving feedback, it’s important not to immediately jump to what the other person did wrong. Instead, you should do a self-assessment so you can evaluate the role you had in the outcome. 

 

make it timely

Seeing as the goal of constructive feedback is to support an individual’s development, you shouldn’t be reserving it for an annual performance review. Instead, provide constructive feedback in the moment (or shortly thereafter), as observable and coachable situations take place. Of course, there is a time and place to deliver feedback. Consider the individual you are delivering feedback to. Would they become flustered, embarrassed, or unresponsive if you pulled them aside immediately after a situation occurred? If so, would they react better if you gave them a day to decompress and then met with them in a private setting? If you want your feedback to land exactly as you intend it to, then this is an important consideration. 

 

Minimize the Chances of a Defensive Reaction

To minimize guarded and defensive reactions from the get-go, forget asking “Can I give you some feedback?” As the author, David Rock noted in an article for NeuroLeadership Journal, “In most people, the question can I offer you some feedback generates a similar response to hearing fast footsteps behind you at night.” If you want your employee to be receptive and engage in a two-way conversation regarding the feedback, then try using one of the constructive feedback examples noted above such as, “I like where this is going but can we try...”

 

Listen and Be Open-Minded

A constructive feedback conversation should not be a one-way discussion where you do all the talking. Instead, you should spend time asking questions and listening to your employee’s perspectives before giving them any feedback. In a study conducted by Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman, it was found that the better an employee ranked a leader on their ability to listen, the higher they ranked the leader on their ability to give feedback.

Better Leaders Ask For More Feedback Bar Graph

 

Be Specific and Reference Evidence, Not Hearsay

Vague, generalized statements are not feedback, and neither is hearsay. Neither are helpful or actionable. When delivering constructive feedback, ensure it is specific to a situation that occurred, not performance as a whole, and that you observed the behavior for yourself. Describe the behavior you witnessed and the results you want to address. For example, instead of “I have noticed your work is always late,” use specifics to address the situation such as, “Let’s formulate a solution to ensure your status report is delivered before the end of the month.”

 

Provide Clarity on the Impact

An employee may not always understand the magnitude of a situation or behavior and the reason you are giving them feedback. Explaining the consequences of the behavior and the possible outcome helps an employee put into context the spin-off effects their actions had. For example, this would be a good way to help a sales employee understand the consequences of their actions: “When you do not update the database with potential sales until they actually close, the finance team cannot accurately forecast revenue. This results in them possibly needing to make budget cuts to ensure targets are met when the potential revenue was in the pipeline all along, but no one knew about it as it was not recorded in the database.”

 

Co-Create an Action Plan

Typically, when giving constructive feedback, your employee is already aware of the issue. In a survey of 4,000 employees who recently received constructive feedback, 74% of respondents indicated they already knew about the problem and were not surprised by the feedback. The issue isn’t identifying the problem, it is knowing how to address where employees struggle. Constructive feedback isn’t just about telling an employee what is wrong. Rather, it should begin a conversation where together you and your employee uncover the potential cause of the problem and then use that information to co-create an actionable solution. 

Ensure Your Feedback is Constructive (1)

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How to Handle Reactions to Constructive Feedback

No matter how much preparation you do, an employee’s reaction to feedback can take you by surprise and derail your intended message. If you want to keep this from happening, it’s important to have key phrases and techniques in your back pocket that can be used to respond to any number of reactions your employee may have. Fortunately, Niagara Institute’s partner and leadership development thought-leader, Verity International, put together a guide so you can get your message across and start working on a solution. 

 

Reaction: Visibly Emotional

The person is visibly emotional, such as mad, shutting down, or crying. 

Your Response

Name the behavior. “It seems you are very [angry/sad/ frustrated/…] right now.” Wait and listen for a response to validate your statement. 

Why It Works

This response diffuses the emotion and breaks the rhythm of the conversation.

 

Reaction: Defensive

The person appears defensive or comes across as a “know-it-all.” 

Your Response

Ask for the person’s help. Approach the person as a collaborator and recognize that he/she has valuable knowledge. “I’d love your opinion on this as I respect your insight. What do you think would make the most sense at this point?” 

Why It Works

People like to be asked for help or expertise. Your response will allow the person to see you as a supportive colleague, not as a critic. 

 

Reaction: Aggressive

The person is speaking in a disrespectful or aggressive manner.

Your Response

“This seems like a very emotionally charged issue for you. I think we would have a more productive discussion if we both took a pause and came back once you’ve had a chance to collect your thoughts.” 

Why It Works

This response does not let the person off the hook and clearly communicates that they must change their approach.

 

Reaction: Silence

The person is quiet and not engaging in the discussion.

Your Response

Ask open questions to engage the person then pause, be quiet, and listen. “What are you thinking right now?” “How would you like to proceed?” Stop talking after you have asked a question or made a statement.

Why It Works

Provides space for the person to speak up and engage collaboratively in the conversation.

 

Reaction: No input on a resolution

The person does not offer any ideas about how the situation could be resolved. 

Your Response

Give the person problem-solving responsibility. “How would you solve this problem if it were up to you?” 

Why It Works

This question gives the person an active role. If the person cannot think of anything, he/she might be more open to your ideas.

 

Reaction: Refuses to budge

The person refuses to budge on a view or position. 

Your Response

Ask questions to understand the other person’s position. “I’d like to understand why this is so important to you. Can you explain it to me?”

Why It Works

It may turn out that your goal and the person’s goal are quite similar in the end. Or, if they are not, then you will be in a better position to suggest a compromise that works for both of you.

 

Reaction: Denial

The person appears to be denying that there is something they could do differently.

Your Response

Ask what the person needs. “What would you need if you were to address this issue?” 

Why It Works

This question helps the person face the problem and take ownership of it.

 

Reaction: No solution

The person does not like any of your solution ideas or believes there is no solution for the situation. 

Your Response

Offer another option or some time for the person to consider your suggested action plan and get back to you. “Take some time to think about the pros and cons of each option and let me know which one makes the most sense to you. We do need to find a solution for this, so let’s work together.”

Why It Works

This approach allows both of you to find a new compromise.

 

Reaction: No Action on Previous Feedback

The person does not appear to act on previous feedback or does not buy into the need to address the problem.

Your Response

State the consequences neutrally, without threatening. Explain what is at stake for the person, the department, or the company. “Resolving this issue is a priority. If it does not get addressed [you/our department/our organization]…”

Why It Works

Seeing the impact of the behavior may motivate the person to take responsibility for changing that behavior.

How to Handle Reactions to Constructive Feedback (1)

Conclusion

According to Gallup, “only about 2 in 10 managers intuitively understand how to engage employees, develop their strengths, and set clear expectations through everyday conversations. In effect, only about 2 in 10 managers instinctively know how to coach. But the others can learn.” This means that even if you have struggled to provide constructive feedback in the past or are struggling, you can learn the necessary coaching skills to do so effectively. 

A great place to start, is with Niagara Institute’s program, Coaching Skills for Managers, delivered in partnership with Verity International. This program equips participants with the skills to have coaching conversations, deliver feedback, and foster accountability in those they lead. 

As John F. Kennedy once said, “Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other." 

The investment you make in developing your leadership abilities, specifically your coaching and feedback skills, not only contributes to your own success as a leader but to the success of those around you, allowing them to do their best work and be their best professional selves.

This guide was created in collaboration with verity international

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Founded in 1971, The Niagara Institute is dedicated to providing relevant learning experiences to the everyday leader through a network of leading content partners on the topics of leadership, communication, diversity and inclusion, and business acumen. In addition to training programs, the Niagara Institute offers professional coaching, assessments, advisory services, and customized training programs. 

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Verity is a Canadian HR consulting firm focused on Leadership Development and Coaching, Career Transition, and Organizational Development. For over 30 years, we have provided caring, impactful and practical support to individuals and organizations across all industries and sectors. Through longstanding national and global partnerships, we serve customers across Canada and in 30 countries worldwide.

 

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