Providing feedback: How to give constructive feedback

Respectful communication between employees and managers, among coworkers, and toward customers is integral to long-term business success. An important part of this is giving each other feedback. Direct feedback is necessary in order to optimize workplace collaboration, but it can also improve and further develop employee skills.

However, feedback always involves a certain potential for conflict. After all, not everyone who gives feedback does so in a diplomatic and constructive manner. And not everyone who receives feedback responds in a calm and understanding way. For feedback to effectively develop employees and improve collaboration, it is vital to follow a few rules when providing feedback.

How important is giving feedback?

The aim of feedback is to provide an informative response about the work or progress of certain projects and tasks. Both positive and negative aspects are important here. For this reason, the term “feedback” should certainly not be understood as a synonym for “crisis discussions,” which only address problems and negative points.

Feedback can also play a key role in influencing collaboration within a company. Firstly, it creates an opportunity to praise and recognize others’ work. Secondly, constructive criticism can improve the performance of coworkers and even motivate the feedback recipient. The emphasis here is on “constructive,” because good feedback should not leave the recipient with a bad feeling, but ideally motivate them toward positive change.

Feedback is therefore crucial for optimizing processes in a company and is also relevant for each coworker personally. Most people need feedback to know that their employer values their work. Nothing is more demotivating than impeccably performing every task for months on end and then being reprimanded for a single mistake. For this reason, it is important to provide feedback not just once per year during staff appraisal meetings but on a more regular basis. The completion of a major project or the delegation of individual tasks can be good opportunities for a subsequent feedback meeting.

If you criticize a coworker or employee for their conduct or work during a feedback meeting, this criticism should never take up the whole conversation. A good strategy is to package the negative feedback as nicely as possible, for instance by using the sandwich method, which embeds criticism between two positive points. The coworker will then not just register the mistake, but also realize that good results are seen and appreciated. Otherwise, there is a high risk that the coworker will respond in a defensive or frustrated manner. If existing positive results are not mentioned, the recipient may also find it difficult to achieve more positive results in the future – a disaster for staff motivation.

In a nutshell, it’s all about appreciation and balance. Always keep this in mind whenever giving feedback.

How to give feedback confidently and constructively

Just like with all other forms of professional communication, with constructive feedback it is important to remain factual and objective. Emotional outbreaks can permanently affect a working relationship – which is why they should always be avoided. If the whole department is currently working under intense pressure and careless mistakes are being made in this stressful situation, it is not the right moment to strike out with a collective telling-off as part of a feedback round.

It’s best to first analyze the situation: Why did the mistakes occur? How could they have been prevented? Rather than venting frustration on an impulse, it’s advisable to wait a couple of days before discussing the matter with your coworkers during a constructive meeting. When calling a feedback meeting, you should also ask for feedback on your own work conduct – after all, only in rare cases does the mistake rest solely on one side.

Naturally, the same also applies to one-on-one feedback meetings. Don’t overwhelm your employee with critical feedback simply because you’re dissatisfied with a particular situation. The risk is too high that they will feel cornered and react defensively or even aggressively, even though it would have been easy to have discussed the issue amicably in a calm conversation.

If you follow the rules below when giving feedback, you will create the foundation for constructive conversations and respectful collaboration.

Arrange a meeting in the near future

Whether you wish to express positive or negative feedback: When the feedback meeting refers to a certain situation or event, you should not spontaneously provide feedback but also not wait too long. Praise for a specific achievement can provide motivation for new tasks, for example, and should not be kept to yourself for months.

It is also better to express criticism in good time. Only then does the recipient have the chance to reflect on their work and make changes. If you collect critical points over an extended time and then offload them all at once in a meeting, they will definitely feel knocked down and unfairly treated.

Here’s a good example of giving feedback:

  • “You solved problem X really well, so I am sure you will also be able to build a positive business relationship with the difficult customer Z.”
  • “I would like to give you the chance to work on yourself before your official staff appraisal meeting, which is why I am mentioning this issue now.”

Collecting information

Collect all the information you need in advance in order to give fair and comprehensive feedback. Ask the employee’s coworkers and customers, if necessary, so that you can get an idea of areas you don’t normally see. Give the feedback recipient the feeling that you know how they work – only then will they take any potential criticism seriously.

Carefully prepare for the meeting

Create a strategy for how you will structure the meeting. Start with positive aspects and then, if necessary, move on to objective, diplomatically-formulated criticism. Never jump straight into criticism. This will spoil the mood and your feedback recipient will find it harder to accept any subsequent praise. Try to combine mistakes or problems with positive aspects.

For example:

  • “I know that you have been familiarizing yourself with Excel really quickly to take on the work of our sick colleague X, and I really appreciate that. We all know that the program can be quite tricky, so it’s no wonder that you made a few mistakes at first. But I’d like to ask you to check twice next time or ask a colleague for help, because we can’t send documents with errors to our customers.”

Communicate objectively and professionally

Always formulate critical feedback objectively and without any personal judgement. You can use “I-statements” to talk about your own impressions of a situation, but avoid expressing criticism in the first person at all costs. Try to avoid absolute statements and point out any possible solutions with each critical point you mention.

An example of good feedback:

  • “I had the feeling that you would have liked some support in this situation. Please let me know next time and I’ll give some of the tasks to your colleague X.”

Examples of bad feedback:

  • “I think you’re overwhelmed by this position.”
  • “I can’t understand why you made this mistake.”

In the first example, you show empathy and understanding for the employee’s situation and do not place yourself above them. It is important to communicate as equals, so that your coworker can perceive the feedback as constructive. This also includes asking them for their assessment of the situation and being able to accept feedback and criticism yourself.

Discuss perspectives and alternatives

For an effective feedback meeting, it is important to talk about consequences at the end. If you give an employee consistently positive feedback, you should also point out ways for them to develop professionally – provided that is possible in the company. Regardless of whether you assign them responsibility for a new project, entrust them with a demanding customer, or offer them training in a certain area – it is essential that the employees see that you value their skills and wish to support them.

In the event of negative feedback, you should think with the employee about how you can improve the situation (for the team as well as the employee). Here it is crucial to identify the causes of the negative points. Perhaps the employee’s strengths lie in another area and a change to their tasks will make them happier? Or it could be that the employee cannot concentrate on their work due to conflict within the team? In this case, a sense of tact and responsible conflict management are required. This way, you will be able to do more than just provide feedback on the current situation; effective conflict management will allow you to provide perspectives.

Summary: Key feedback rules at a glance

  • Give feedback at regular intervals
  • Discuss one on one (or in a meeting if multiple employees are concerned)
  • Do not provide feedback immediately in crisis situations, but do not wait too long either
  • Collect information on the conduct/work of the employee from several people
  • Prepare the structure of the meeting
  • Communicate as equals (with empathy)
  • Stay objective (no accusations)
  • Also ask the employee for feedback
  • Offer perspectives and potential solutions

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