For most people, a defining feature of an effective leader is someone that helps their employees become better at their role, and facilitates career growth.  One of the key ways this is done is through constructive feedback.  Though it may be the most difficult part of employee management, getting comfortable with delivering constructive criticism in a timely manner is essential for facilitating a healthy workplace and minimizing future issues.

Be timely

It is important to give constructive feedback immediately upon discovering any issue or problem. If you have 1-on-1’s with your team every week, bring it up then. By talking about any issues in a timely manner, it will be fresh in both your minds. Do not wait until a quarterly or yearly review; by then it is often too late to fix any problems, and you may be perceived as cowardly for avoiding the conversation.

If you aren’t doing 1-on-1’s, now is the time to start. They are an amazing opportunity for open conversations that build relationships and trust. As they are scheduled conversations, they allow you to bring up any problems in a comfortable situation. This is definitely better than telling an employee “We need to chat” and causing them to panic.

Be specific

If you are going to be providing constructive feedback, do your employee the courtesy of being specific. Have key data points available at your fingertips so you are confident about the topic you are discussing. This is your opportunity to correct their behaviour.  Being vague will likely lead to even more confusion, and potentially even bigger errors in the future.

Focus specifically on the action, behaviour, or issue; do not make it a personal attack. The report was late – not the person was late. Explain the effect the issue had. This way, your employee does not feel like they are being attacked personally; instead they will feel like your focus is on understanding the situation, fixing it, and avoiding it happening again.

Keep it simple

No matter how you structure constructive feedback, too much of it will be overwhelming and will decrease the chance of success. Focus on two or three important points; any more than that will lead to confusion. It will also seem like you have been saving up all these negatives for one conversation instead of providing constructive feedback in a timely manner. Your feedback should be welcomed as valuable advice, not a barrage of complaints.

Listen well

Remember that this is a conversation not an accusation. Listen for key information and ask good questions. You want to make sure you aren’t focusing on the wrong problem. Generally, as a manager you only see a part of your team’s work. Without knowing the full situation, you cannot understand what the real issue is.

If someone has made the same error in their reporting several times, tell them specifically what the error is, and what report it was in.  Ask them if they are aware of the error, and listen to their response as to why it is happening.  You may find out that they were trained incorrectly, or that they have 20 reports due on the same day and they are simply stretched too thin.  Listen, think, and then react.

Create an action plan

If you are going to provide constructive feedback, you need to provide actionable items for improvement.  Don’t assume they have understood what is expected of them; make sure they actually understand. After this conversation, the employee should feel that they have a very clear direction to follow. Email them an outline of what you discussed, and how they are to move forward.  This way, everyone is on the same page.

Schedule follow up meetings to discuss progress. During these follow ups, focus on the actions being taken, not that initial situation. Give positive recognition.

Keep notes

Make notes on your initial discussion for their employee file. Not only does this provide a framework for conversations when formal reviews come along, but by being able to refer back to these notes, you can accurately discuss improvements they’ve made over the year.  You will then be able to give credit where it is due based on concrete facts. Also, should a situation deteriorate, you can provide these notes to HR.

Other things to keep in mind

  • Take a moment to make sure that any unconscious bias you have towards this person is not clouding your judgement of the situation. Watch your body language too.
  • Be aware that the words you use are always subject to interpretation; be sure that the message you send is what is actually being received by the employee. Stay away from corporate jargon.
  • Be sure you are not coming off as condescending or overly aggressive. Be supportive not superior.
  • Completely avoid saying the following phrases: “If I were you…”; “You always…”; and Everyone has mentioned/noticed that…”

When looking for examples of leaders that give great constructive feedback, you don’t need to look far; just look at the great leaders you have had in your career. Focus on what worked well with their approach. Start there and you will do well with any constructive feedback you need to provide in your leadership role.

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