Giving balanced feedback remains one of the biggest challenges for many leaders in creating a supportive and motivating work environment. When business leaders focus too much on positive feedback, they will not inspire their employees to grow in constructive ways. On the other hand, overly negative feedback makes employees feel discouraged and can make them give up on trying to improve. Leaders need to find how to balance the positive with the negative to motivate employees to try new things while reinforcing the things that they do particularly well. Here are some tips that leaders should keep in mind as they give their employees feedback.
Being tough does not mean being cruel.
When employees drop the ball, they need to understand how they failed so that they can do a better job next time. Leaders must acknowledge the failure, but they should do so in a kind way. Even if they become angry with their employees, they need to put the brakes on that frustration to give thoughtful feedback that does not come across as mean. A great way to start this conversation involves asking employees what they think went wrong with the situation. Leaders should never say that a thought process or a decision is “stupid,” since this is not constructive. Instead, leaders should try to figure out why the decision was made and where the thought process went wrong.
Create and maintain a safe office space.
According to research conducted by a neuroscientist at Columbia University, people apply the feedback they receive less than a third of the time. This failure may relate to the degree of safety they feel when receiving feedback. When individuals do not feel safe, their anxiety can overwhelm the whole encounter. People can only think critically about feedback and how to incorporate it when they feel secure. While creating a general culture of openness and acceptance can help with this point, leaders can also be proactive by declaring the space safe at the beginning of the conversation. This simple statement can dispel much of the anxiety that employees feel leading up to a feedback session.
Deliver feedback that is balanced.
One of the tried-and-true techniques for delivering feedback is to balance criticism with positive comments. Often, leaders will hear that they should end the encounter on an optimistic note, but this approach can leave employees feeling like they received a handout, especially if the rest of the encounter was negative. In reality, leaders need to balance the whole conversation. Even in the worst situations, employees still have redeeming qualities that their bosses can highlight. Conversely, even the most perfect employees have something they can improve upon in the future to make them even better. Balancing feedback helps employees understand their personal strengths and the areas in which they need some work.
Provide feedback in a timely manner.
Today’s busy schedules can make it difficult to deliver timely feedback, but a reflection on performance becomes less effective with each day that passes. The one caveat to this tip is that leaders should give themselves time to cool off if the situation is emotionally charged. Approaching the situation with a level head is critical. Even in that situation, leaders should aim to have the conversation as quickly as possible after the event. With feedback delivered on the fly, employees can make small adjustments to their workflow and see how those changes help or hinder. Many leaders only deliver feedback on a quarterly basis, which is often too far removed from a task for the advice to have real meaning. Furthermore, these spaced feedback sessions can overwhelm employees with advice.
Practice active listening skills.
Feedback conversations should always be thought of as a dialogue rather than a monologue. Great leaders ask employees how they think they performed and ensure mutual understanding through the course of the dialogue. A critical aspect of any dialogue is active listening. Leaders should repeat what the employee has said—in their own words—so that the employee feels heard and understood, especially when the conversation becomes emotionally charged. In the event that a leader becomes emotional, it is always smart to ask to continue the conversation at a later date rather than let those emotions guide the conversation. After providing feedback, leaders need to provide some time for processing rather than pushing the employee to respond right away. Often, active listening means embracing silence.
Offer feedback that is specific and targeted.
Generalized feedback is typically rather difficult for people to incorporate. After all, offering vague generalities like “misses deadlines” does not actually give the employee anything to work with. However, specifics like “It’s possible you miss deadlines because you become sidetracked with the smaller tasks involved,” is helpful. Then, the feedback can provide some helpful, actionable advice, such as setting a timer for 30 minutes for each issue and moving on to another issue at the end of that time. Specificity helps individuals take real steps toward making change—and learning more general lessons in the process.