Mastering the Art of Constructive Feedback – a how to guide for Managers and Leaders

Employees are 4.6 times more likely to perform better if they feel their voice is heard.

Effective feedback can motivate employees, improve performance, and foster a positive work environment. Given its importance, why then is giving, and receiving feedback not a core tenet of how every business operates? Perhaps it’s because it’s a difficult skill to master well.

Given our inherent need for positive self-image it’s not often we choose to put ourselves in the vulnerable position of being told where we have gone wrong. Unfortunately, many of us have been on the receiving end of poorly delivered feedback that has had the opposite effect to what was intended. This can be both demotivating and even damaging.

But take note, the risk is not just limited to the performance of the team, it is also critical to retaining talent. In this dynamic market environment where the fight for employees is ever increasing, retaining those already recruited is vital.

  • 34% of employees say their managers don't listen when they voice their opinions, which would be a factor in leaving their jobs. (Globe Newswire)
  • 24% of workers would consider leaving their jobs if they have managers who provide insufficient performance feedback. (Globe Newswire)

So, while its importance is clearly understood, what’s often missing is the knowledge for how to go about it…successfully.

The most critical component is creating a psychologically safe environment where everyone can operate from a place of openness and vulnerability. This means there is clear communication, an environment of trust, and a willingness to fail, learn and grow.

“Psychological safety is present when colleagues trust and respect each other and feel able – even obligated – to be candid. It’s the difference between playing not to lose and playing to win.”

Amy Edmondson, Professor of Leadership & Management Harvard Business School & author of The Fearless Organisation

These are ten tips to consider that will help avoid making costly mistakes when delivering constructive feedback.

  1. Create a feedback culture. That starts with you. Are you willing to hear about the good things you are doing and the areas in which you need to grow? Are you happy for someone to shine a light on your own blind spots? If you are, then great. Make sure you model the behaviour with those around you – tell people you want to receive feedback. Ask them would they like for you to also do the same for them? But respect the fact they may not yet be willing or able to hear it about themselves.
  2. Come with good intentions. What is the real motivation for delivering the feedback? Are you sharing an observation you’ve made with the specific desire to see that person improve in their role. All boats rise. Or, are you hoping to take that person down a notch or two – their arrogance offends you. Only you can truly know what is driving you to provide the information, but the recipient will feel the impact through all the non-verbal cues you will be communicating. If your intentions aren’t pure in that moment, pause and reflect on your actions and if/when both you and the time are right then proceed and share.
  3. Consider your energy. Did you know that VERBAL communication only accounts for 7% of what you are telling someone, while 38% is TONE and the remaining 55% is your BODY LANGUAGE. So give thought to the energy you bring to the session when you are delivering your feedback. Are you in a calm and controlled state of being or are you rushing between meetings and delivering your feedback in a hasty fashion so you can just get it done? You may be using all the right words, but if your body language is communicating you are in a hurry don’t expect your message to land the way it was originally intended.
  4. Pay attention to your impact. You don’t know everything about the other person’s world right in that moment. So be sure to check if what you are sharing is landing in the right way with the recipient. On a different day they may be fully receptive to your messages, but on this particular day they may be struggling to truly hear the words you have actually said. They may attribute different meaning to what you had intended. Check in and encourage them to replay what they heard, so you can validate that is what you meant. Equally if they are getting visibly distressed (upset or angry) take a step back and allow them to get their emotions under control. It may be more productive to reschedule it for another time.
  5. Seek agreement. Sometimes, albeit with the best of intentions, we can decide to share some feedback with a person, without checking that they are open to receiving it. We may have all the right motivations but we shouldn’t assume that they feel the same way. Always ask “Would you be open to hearing some observations I have that I believe will support you in your role?”. Use the words that come naturally to you but refrain from using the word “feedback” given its negative connotations and signal your intentions, so they are clear why you wish to engage in it.
  6. Make it timely. For it to have value both the person providing the feedback and the recipient need to be able to recall the situation in substantial detail so that they can work through it together. Failing that it becomes ‘generic’ feedback which doesn’t achieve the same level of desired outcome and can instead leave the recipient feeling demotivated rather than inspired to learn and grow.
  7. Allow time for reflection. Linked to the timeliness of the feedback, it’s also useful to reflect before giving feedback so that you can distil it down into meaningful observations, insights, and actions so that it is tangible for the recipient. Equally you need to allow the recipient time to consider your feedback, reflect on it and provide the forum for them to come back to you to discuss if further if they need to do so. Not everyone processes information at the same speed or in the same way, particularly if the feedback is of a more personal nature.
  8. Make it specific. For feedback to have any value it needs to be specific. This links back to your intentions – what are you hoping to achieve by sharing your observations with someone? Are you looking for them to take a certain action, or so stop taking an action. Be clear in your own mind first and then use that understanding for how you frame your delivery.
  9. Be open to challenge. It’s not the case that the recipient has to blindly accept what you are saying, even if you feel you are right. All too often there is a perception that a more senior person ‘knows best’. This is not always the case. We all have our biases which we bring into the work environment too, and we may be providing feedback on the basis of how we might handle a situation. That does not mean a different view is wrong. For feedback to be truly meaningful, discussion about it will enable greater acceptance if it’s valid and rejection of it if it’s inaccurate. The quality of the discussion is the critical element so pay close attention to how you are handling yourself.
  10. It’s a two-way street. If you are in the position of sharing feedback with another person, be prepared to have feedback shared with you in return. Some people misguidedly believe that feedback can only go one direction, from senior to junior, but that should not be the case. We all can benefit from an alternative perspective. As with all feedback it does not have to be accepted as fact, but it should always be considered.

To achieve the desired results this requires fostering an environment that sees a FAIL as ‘first attempt in learning’, rather than as something to be knocked or hidden. It is only from making mistakes that we grow and create new and better ways to do things. This approach doesn’t have to always come from the top, so if it’s not present in your organisation, I challenge you to roll model the right behaviours  – starting with your own vulnerability, and soon others will be following your lead.


Email: niamh@niamhtwyford com  | Phone: +353 87 050 6441