7 ways to give valuable and constructive feedback to employees

Of all the ways we communicate at work, feedback is an essential one.

Providing feedback is key to letting your employees know how they’re performing and what’s expected of them, as well as supporting your team’s learning and development. It’s important this feedback happens on a regular, ongoing basis – not just when performance reviews come around.

So, as a manager or team leader, how can you best approach the kind of constructive feedback that deals with issues or shortcomings staff need to improve on?

We asked David Jones, Managing Director at Protiviti for his insights – here are 7 principles for giving valuable constructive feedback.

  1. Be problem-focused and specific
    An important part of telling an employee what they could do better is to tell them why. For example, starting a conversation with, “You need to be getting to work earlier” assumes the employee knows why punctuality is so important. Instead, be clear about the actual problem at hand and structure your feedback around it.

    The employee might not have all the background or context on an issue. So, if necessary, give them a sense of how the issue affects you and the rest of the business. The more specific you can make your feedback, the more actionable it will be.
  2. Talk about the situation, not the individual
    Constructive feedback is, by nature, focused on outcomes and impartial observations – not the employee’s personal attributes. Feedback centred on the individual could be taken as an attack motivated by personal feelings, rather than objective facts.

    By discussing the situation itself, you’re showing you’re most concerned about fixing the problem at hand and not criticising the employee.
  3. Give praise where it’s due
    Giving employees positive feedback is essential, too – and acknowledging positives among negatives can be a good way to reassure them that you haven’t lost perspective. For example, “I think you did a great job with this account – sales are up 13% since last quarter. But we’ve had a few customers tell us that response times have increased.” This tells the employee that you're not criticising their overall performance; just that certain aspects of their job need attention. Be careful not to over-emphasise the positives, as this can make you appear uncertain or insincere.
  4. Be direct but informal
    Try not to use email or text message to relay your feedback, as this can lead to misinterpretation and make it seem less important than it really is. It’s best to speak in-person, by finding a quiet space where you can have an honest and informal one-on-one chat with the employee. If that’s not possible, a phone or video chat can work if that’s how you regularly communicate.

    While you want to be informal, it’s best not to beat around the bush – feedback of any sort is most effective when you get straight to the point.
  5. Be sincere
    If your tone and manner don't match the context of the feedback itself, you could send out a mixed message that confuses your employee.

    If the feedback is positive, let your emotions also indicate that you appreciate their efforts. For negative feedback, a more concerned tone will show you believe the problem should be taken seriously. Most importantly, always try to avoid displaying negative emotions such as anger, sarcasm or disappointment.
  6. Listen
    When giving constructive feedback, make sure your employee has a chance to respond. It should be a conversation between you both. This shows you’re prepared to listen to their concerns and their interpretation of events. It’s also an opportunity for the employee to express their ideas to you and become part of the solution.
  7. Make it timely
    It’s best to give praise when an employee’s achievement is still fresh. Timeliness is also important for negative feedback – except in a situation where an employee has done something that makes you feel genuinely bad. In that case, it may be wise to wait until you’ve ‘cooled off’ before taking it up with them. This will help to ensure that your feedback is objective and not coloured by emotion.

Ultimately, the best kind of constructive feedback focuses on behaviour or situations, not people and personalities and is conducted in a tone and setting that conveys support and respect. Great constructive feedback helps employees recognise and avoid their mistakes and inspires them to achieve their potential.

Finally, keep in mind that we all thrive on positive reinforcement, so don’t assume employees will always know when they’re performing well – come out and tell them. Be it positive or negative, providing staff with ongoing feedback is one of the most important and powerful employee development tools at your disposal.