How to Provide Powerful Feedback at Work

man and woman sitting at table at work and discussing performance

We’re all called on at some point to give feedback to our bosses or employees, colleagues or direct reports, regardless of whether or not you hold a leadership position. And often that feedback is given in response to a negative situation or action that has taken place and needs to be addressed.

Giving feedback, then, is a crucial moment in workplace relationships where both the content and delivery of your message can either deteriorate the situation further or turn things around and lead to a better outcome for everyone involved. In moments like this, you must choose your words (and your ways) wisely, and stay focused on giving feedback that will contribute to an improved, positive work environment.

Here are some best practices around giving the most constructive feedback at work, regardless of your seniority level, to turn bad behaviors, habits, and challenging situations into breakthrough opportunities for growth and success:

Timing is everything

Don’t wait too long to provide feedback, especially if it’s in response to a mistake or problem. If you are addressing a serious wrong, keep your feedback short and to the point. Going on and on about someone’s mistakes can sometimes feel overwhelming to the recipient and can invalidate the content of your feedback. Where timing is concerned, be swift in your response time and quick to move through the salient points and to a more positive space.

Be specific

Vagueness is a killer when it comes to giving good feedback. If you don’t have a clear action plan to convey to the recipient of your feedback, they may feel bad for messing up but also unclear about how to right the wrong going forward. Tell them specifically and briefly what you’ve observed that is causing an issue and the impact it’s having, either on you or the department or organization as a whole. Give them time to respond, but then also suggest ways to work through it -- a solution or an action plan. Your tone here should be positive and collaborative, and not at all dismissive or belittling.

Don’t forget the positive feedback!

If you only give feedback to those around you when something goes wrong, they may begin to question your intentions or your leadership style. Or, they may begin to avoid you altogether if the bulk of their interactions with you are negative against them. So remember to vocalize positive feedback on a regular basis… and also be specific when you’re giving the positive feedback. Over time, if you’re too vague, even if the feedback is positive, your words and sentiments may lose meaning with the recipient, who could interpret it as inauthentic.

Stay focused

Especially if you’re giving feedback on bad behavior, don’t hit the recipient with a long list of things to absorb in one conversation. Choose the most important or pressing issue, and save the other items for separate discussion at a later time. You don’t want your recipient to feel like they’re being inundated with negativity.

Don’t draw a crowd

Ideally, when you give feedback, especially if it’s a little sensitive or addressing a problem, it should be done in a closed one-on-one setting (or, at the very least, among a small group of people who are also involved in the situation). You don’t want the recipient of your feedback to get the sense that they’re being “ganged up on,” which can put them on the defensive.

Ask for permission

Before the discussion, ask if it’s ok that you give a little feedback. By providing them the chance to “allow” the feedback or “invite” it, it automatically makes your recipient more receptive to your message and gives them the sense that they’re also in control, rather than being confronted out of the blue.

Allow them to respond

To be fair, make room in the conversation so the other person can respond to your feedback and have a voice in the situation. They may even be able to provide you with some key details you weren’t previously aware of so you can both work toward finding a solution that works for everyone.

Be empathetic

Take a second to think about how you might respond or feel if someone confronted you. Come from a place of empathy and a desire to understand, rather than an accusatory position. Show the person you’re talking with that you’re in their corner, rather than “calling them out” or being overly critical to make them feel bad. The primary focus of your feedback should be working together to find new ways to improve the situation or create solutions.

Don’t make it personal

Avoid personal insults to someone’s character or personality when you’re giving feedback. This will immediately put them on the defensive (or possibly create an aggressive conversation) and your message will get lost.

Ask for their feedback

To stress the idea that your priority is collaboration and finding solutions together, ask the other person if there’s anything you can do to help them work through the challenges. You may also inquire if there’s anything you’re doing inadvertently that is making their job more difficult or contributing to the problem. Insert yourself into the story here, and take responsibility for the outcome. Let them know you’re “in this together” and you’re ready and willing to do your part to make it work, even if that means addressing some behaviors or practices you’re exhibiting that may need to change.

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