How to Give Difficult Feedback Constructively

As a manager, giving difficult feedback to an employee can be one of the hardest parts of your job.

The conversation can be fraught with peril. If done well, giving tough feedback can help your team member grow – but if done poorly, you risk consequences like straining your relationship, or demoralizing him or her.

Sometimes it might seem easier to just brush the problem under the rug!

Don’t fall into that trap. If you don’t give that feedback, you miss out on giving your team member a chance to better themselves, at the risk of harming his or her career.

Receiving good feedback is a gift. As a writer, I’m grateful when my editors take the time to point out flaws in my work and offer suggestions for improvement. Is it an ego blow? Every time. But it also helps me get better at my job – and hopefully your team will feel the same.

Here are some tips for making that conversation the most productive it can be.

Don’t wait

Feedback is best given right away, as soon as you notice a problem. That ensures the lesson will be fresh in both of your minds – plus, stockpiling criticisms from long ago can make you seem petty.

If you wait until the end-of-year review to comment on a mistake your team member made at the beginning of the year, you’ll have let an entire year of missed opportunities for growth go by.

Give difficult feedback in person

Email is a tricky medium for feedback, since it’s easy for your meaning to get lost or misunderstood. Over the phone is marginally better, but nothing is as good as sitting down in person to talk over problems.

Meeting in person does two things. First, it allows you both to better gauge each others’ responses. And second, it frames your feedback as a productive conversation, rather than a disciplinary action.

Be specific

When it comes to tough feedback, be as specific as possible. Say, “You’ve been consistently late to meetings about X project,” rather than “You’re not pulling your weight on X project.”

Specific feedback gives your team member something to work on and move towards, whereas general criticism can have the opposite effect of making it seem like there’s nothing he can do to fix the problem – and it could even breed resentment if your team member doesn’t make the connections on his own.

Before your meeting, break down your general critiques into smaller, more actionable morsels of feedback.

Don’t pile on the mistakes

Because most of us tend to hold off on these conversations, it can be tempting to pile up everything to say all at once. The problem is that listing off all your concerns about your team member will quickly overwhelm her, and destroy any chance at a productive conversation.

Try to distill multiple concerns into a single piece of fundamental behavioral feedback. Focusing your efforts on correcting a single bit of bad behavior – like a tendency to rush through without double checking her work – may clear up a host of other problems.

Come up with a plan together

Make a tough feedback conversation truly productive by treating it as a brainstorming session. Try to frame this meeting as a way of working together to solve a problem, rather than simply handing down your criticism from on high.

Instead of prescribing a plan, work together to come up with next steps and solutions that seem right to both of you. That way your team member will be more invested in solving the problem.

Uncertain? Run things past HR

If you’re just not sure what to say, try consulting with HR first before having the discussion. You may even want to practice what you’ll say, or role play in order to get your wording correct.

It may be smart to consult with HR if you’re dealing with a particularly tricky situation, as well – you want to make sure you’re staying within your rights as an employer, and not crossing any lines.

Want to learn more? GovLoop is hosting a webinar titled Critical Conversations: Communicating Up, Down and Sideways. Join us on Wednesday, May 13th at 2PM ET/11AM PT and learn how to handle difficult conversations, communicate more effectively with your coworkers, and enhance your conflict management skills.

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Mark Hammer

Interested folks should check out work by Deb Shapiro at U.Maryland-College Park, who has co-authored a number of papers on factors underlying the success of managerial delivery styles and explanations for bad news; often revolving around perceived fairness of what managers have to convey, as a function of how it is conveyed.