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Encouraging Employee Improvement Through Constructive Feedback

The term “constructive criticism” grew out of a need to describe feedback given with the intent to help individuals improve behaviors and performance without tearing down their self-esteem. Despite its carefully crafted name, this type of feedback has a poor reputation. Suggestions from coworkers, spouses, and managers can make individuals feel like they are being judged. The comments may challenge one’s self-esteem as well as the value of one’s contributions.

The Negativity Effect

Given two events of equal impact in our lives, one positive and one negative, the negative one is likely to have a more profound impact on us emotionally and psychologically. This effect is known as negativity bias. While the praise that we receive for outstanding performance feels good, the emotion is short-lived. Conversely, criticism and the feelings of self-doubt or frustration that result can be long-lasting, causing us to read deeper into the meaning behind such comments than we should.

Negativity bias can even act as a filter for daily interactions with others, becoming the lenses through which we view the world. When a coworker asks you to revise your document by the end of the day, you may not hear the intended message that it’s good but needs more detail. Instead, you may jump to the conclusion that you fell short of expectations, let the team down, or are not qualified. Those exposed to chronic stress at work or home are more prone to develop a strong negativity bias, making feedback more challenging to receive and respond to appropriately.

Compounding Complications

Many of the tools managers employ to provide feedback and avoid putting employees on the defensive disappeared as many employees moved to remote working conditions over the past year. Managers can no longer control the environment or set the stage for a comfortable face-to-face conversation. They must adapt to the existing conditions available with video chat and phone calls. While these are indispensable tools, they do not allow for the personable interactions to which we are accustomed. Body language, eye contact, and handshakes, which can contribute much to the conversation, are absent or severely limited.

Difficult Conversations

Providing feedback is an essential part of managing and growing your workforce. A steady stream of praise is not helpful to employees. While it avoids confrontation, it may leave them feeling confused about performance expectations. Every employee can be learning and improving, and feedback provides direction to guide efforts. However, providing it effectively requires leaders to develop and implement a new set of tools.

1. Ask Questions

The best managers stay in touch with daily operations around them, observe trends, and take note of issues. However, even the most astute leaders can miss subtle nuances. Before you provide your view of a situation, ask employees for their assessment. Find out their feelings about a project. Was it intimidating or overwhelming? Did they run into obstacles? Their personal feelings and experience may enlighten you about circumstances affecting their performance.

Armed with all the facts, explain your motivation for inquiring about a project. What have you noticed, heard, or seen? Approaching the situation by laying all the cards on the table opens the conversation for collaboration. You allow your employee to be a partner in identifying and resolving the issue that is concerning you.

2. Be Positive

Before launching into your concerns, be sure to recognize the positive that you observe. Be as specific as you can about employee strengths and efforts. Demonstrating your knowledge of the good, the bad, and the ugly will lend credibility to the following statements. Show interest in their personal growth and career development. Viewing you as a career coach rather than a taskmaster will lead others to trust your feedback because they understand your motivation benefits them.

As you express concerns, avoid putting others on the defensive by using phrases that begin with “you.” Speaking in terms of “you” verbally points your finger at another person. Alternatively, try to speak in terms of yourself, “I,” or the organization, phrasing requests in terms of how employee actions play into company success and goal achievement. Being a part of achieving something grander than themselves can be motivation enough to change.

3. Be Brave

Performance reviews and project evaluations are not at the top of the list of favorite conversations because they can be difficult and unpleasant. In organizations where company culture dictates positive, respectful, and polite interactions, it may be challenging to address performance issues or missteps. However, avoiding addressing problems with employees allows weaknesses to fester and undermine positive achievement and attributes that contribute to success. These conversations are necessary for employee development. However, wise leaders also understand that everyone has bad days and makes mistakes. Too much negative feedback, even delivered the right way, can undermine a person’s confidence and motivation to improve.

4. Be Specific

Vague statements from a manager asking for more efficiency or better results rarely have the desired outcome. Not knowing how to make improvements can confuse employees. Guessing what a manager meant by a cryptic comment can send employees down a rabbit hole chasing a non-issue or feeling poorly about well-executed work. The best feedback leaves no leeway for interpretation. Feedback that tells an employee explicitly what they need to do gives them a specific task on which to focus their efforts.

Taking time to clarify your statements at the conclusion of a conversation can pre-empt misunderstandings. Using contrasting statements such as, “I am asking you to pay more attention to detail.” and “I am not questioning your ability to write.” can be helpful. These juxtaposing statements clearly show your intent and simplify your request. It may also be beneficial to ask for a summary of the key points from the conversation. Any conflicting ideas will come to light as your employee rephrases your feedback in their own words.

Being specific does not require that you provide concrete solutions or a recipe to follow. Individuals learn problem-solving skills as they seek out their own unique solutions. Instruct them on what needs to be done but do not dictate how it must be done. Allow them the space to learn new skills and improve their abilities.

Feedback is an essential tool within every business and at every level of an organization. As leaders seek to build teams of skilled personnel through partnerships with recruiting firms to hire the best talent, they must also learn how to instruct and coach those employees to turn their weaknesses into strengths. The delivery, the atmosphere, and the motivation behind such efforts will be most successful when employees feel that management has their best interests in mind.

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