We all know how much employees value positive feedback about and recognition for their work. But the same can’t be said about constructive feedback. Why do we fear these much-needed conversations, and why don’t we give them the priority they deserve?
As an HR consulting professional, I regularly mediate disagreements and coach managers on how to deliver difficult news. So I can tell you from personal experience: it doesn’t matter how many tough conversations you’ve had, giving constructive feedback is hard.
I’ve managed all kinds of hard conversations, from company closures and terminations to performance improvement plans, but sometimes, they cover topics as simple as personality clashes and misunderstandings. In this article, I’ll share the insights I’ve gained through years of coaching.
Conflict can be a good thing
Per Merriam-Webster, conflict can be defined as "a mental struggle resulting from from incompatible or opposing needs, drives, wishes or external or internal demands.”
…and it can also present a wonderful opportunity! Overcoming conflict helps us grow, learn, and change for the better. We need conflict in order to become our best selves, even in the workplace. Conflict has many purposes at work, and when it’s handled appropriately, conflict can strengthen interpersonal relationships within teams.
Improves employee and manager performance
Conflict is often caused by unmet expectations and other misunderstandings stemming from ineffective communication. Addressing conflict in appropriate ways helps people know, meet, and exceed expectations.
It’s amazing how well we can perform once we understand what is expected of us. Setting clear and realistic expectations for our coworkers, direct reports and managers sets us all up for success.
Disagreements, handled with the proper care, can actually bring people closer together. Opening up to coworkers about a concern shows vulnerability, trust and transparency.
Providing our coworkers with feedback shows that we care enough about them to help steer them in the right direction. It also establishes healthy, needed boundaries and limits on behaviors we are willing to accept. You and your team members can learn more about one another and come to a deeper understanding through healthy conflict resolution.
Know your audience
It’s critically important that you understand how the person on the receiving end of your feedback will react and respond to you. Depending on your respective communication styles, the feedback may need to be delivered in a modified way.
Many assessments exist to help us identify our communication styles. DISC and Myers Briggs are two of the most widely recognized assessments, but there are also other similar tests out there, some of which are free. By having your whole team take a communication style assessment, you can better understand how to interact with each other and how to best provide feedback. Plus, it can be a fun team bonding activity. 💖
Most of these assessments break communication styles into four main categories. The names for the categories differ slightly from test to test, but they tend to share similar traits across the board.
The authors of the book How to Deal with Annoying People: What to Do When You Can’t Avoid Them do a particularly thorough job of explaining these categories and what they mean for providing effective feedback.
For simplicity, these are the communication styles I'll cover:
Let's dive into each of these personality types, their strengths and weaknesses, and how to best approach giving them feedback.
People with an analytical communication style respect competence and expect accuracy from others. They care about the details, even seemingly irrelevant ones, and they expect you to as well. They cross their Ts and dot their Is, and their attention often pays off in the quality of their work.
However, their standards can be too high or unrealistic. They often suffer from “paralysis by analysis” and have trouble making decisions and starting projects. Analyticals can prefer the analyzing and planning phase to performing the actual work, and they often take a long time ultimately declare a project complete.
It’d make an analytical person very uncomfortable if you try to pressure them into making a rushed decision without providing supporting evidence as to why your idea is a good one. This, of course, can come across as highly offensive to Amiables and Expressives who value relationships and make decisions based on emotion. It also annoys Drivers who just want to check the item off their list and move on.
When giving feedback to an Analytical, make sure you support whatever you’re saying with documented evidence and specific examples. Do not expect an Analytical to change behaviors simply because what they’re doing makes you unhappy or uncomfortable. Analyticals understand their own working styles best, and can see your suggestions as a roadblock. Instead, focus on how what they’re doing fails to meet established expectations, and provide the specific criteria for that expectation. Support observations with facts and figures whenever possible. 📊
Example of feedback for an Analytical:
“In our review of your formal job description, we discussed the requirement to communicate effectively with other staff. In your recent peer review, 25% of your peers reported that your criticisms of their work made them less engaged and productive and even resulted in them making worse mistakes. When asked how you could improve your approach, they all reported that privately asking them for clarification when you have a question about their work would be the best approach. Moving forward, let’s follow this approach and not directly point out your coworkers’ mistakes, especially in front of other people.”
Drivers are dynamic, goal-oriented individuals who are often found in leadership positions. They are highly productive, strong-willed, and exude confidence, but they can also make rash, impulsive decisions.
Drivers prefer to delegate work, particularly if they find it tedious. They hate getting bogged down with details and instead prefer to receive the high-level overview. Someone who is a Driver may be perceived as bossy, manipulative, rude, or short-sighted. This communication style particularly afronts Analyticals, who dislike recklessness, and Amiables, who don’t enjoy being pushed to do things.
If you need to provide feedback to a Driver, follow this simple directive: Be quick, be smart, be gone! Say what you need to see happen, provide a brief but meaningful reason for why they should adjust, and then let them get on with their day.
Example of feedback for a Driver:
“I’ve noticed several typos on the last three client proposals you submitted. I need you to slow down and double check your work before submitting it. Your performance review will be more favorable, and you’ll be eligible for a bigger bonus percentage, if you turn this around right now and I see very few mistakes moving forward.”
If you have a coworker who is easy-going, good-natured, and supportive, you work with an Amiable. Amiables don’t like to rock the boat and are generally content with their day-to-day routines. They perform well under pressure and are often seen as stabilizing forces on teams. Although you might love working with an Amiable teammate, if you’re any other communication style, the Amiable probably finds you to be difficult to work with. 😝
One of the most important things to remember when providing feedback to someone with an amiable communication style is that they typically emotionally sensitive. They are the most likely to take feedback personally and see it as a personal failing. It’s important to take extra steps when providing feedback to Amiables to avoid them feeling hurt or offended.
Showing that you care about their personal growth and are providing feedback to help them be successful is the most productive way to give Amiables feedback. They are collaborative personalities, so suggest check-ins as they work on solutions to their problems.
Example of feedback for an Amiable:
“Thanks so much for meeting with me. I have enjoyed working with you these past few months, and I am so glad we are able to connect. Since I envision you becoming one of our strongest support reps, I want to make sure you’re equipped with the tools to get there. Currently, the time it takes you to close out an open ticket is averaging 5-hours longer than the goal we established. We need to fulfill our commitment to customers to completely resolve their issues in 24 hours or less. If you follow the SOPs that I shared with you step-by-step, every time, I am confident that you will achieve this goal.”
Expressives are everything their name implies. They love to talk and tell stories, and they have tons of energy. Expressives are creative and inspirational, so they make great public speakers.
Their spontaneity and regular shift in focus, however, often results in poor planning, and they are often late to meetings. While Expressives always seem happy, they can be perceived as being “fake”. They also annoy others be not letting them get a word in edgewise. Drivers particularly dislike being held captive by long-winded, meandering Expressives, and their energy levels can completely exhaust Analyticals and Amiables.
Because Expressives need to feel heard, it’s important to include questions in your feedback to allow them to tell you what they think their opportunities for improvement are. It’s also important to not let them go off on a tangent or change the subject, so you may need to redirect them back to the issue at hand at least once.
Example of feedback for an Expressive:
“Thanks for meeting with me! I wanted to hear from you on how you’ve been doing and what areas for improvement you’ve identified. (...) Great, thanks for sharing that with me. I agree that you could focus more on closing sales. What can I do to best support you with this? (...) I can do that. What can I expect to see from you moving forward? (...) Great! Thanks so much for discussing this with me.
Tips for giving effective feedback
In his world-renowned book How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie explains how to give constructive criticism without alienating people. While his model certainly keeps the likeability of the person giving feedback intact, it has a few major drawbacks:
- It’s not direct enough to effectively address the issues for Drivers.
- It’s not specific enough to address issues with Analyticals.
- Anyone, regardless of their communication style, might walk away from receiving feedback not understanding the consequences of unchanged behavior.
For these reasons, I've learned to blend Carnegie's trusted approach with the feedback formula proposed by Shari Harley in How to Say Anything to Anyone. The following steps outline the ultimate effective feedback approach, and like her book says, this isn’t strictly for supervisors—these are also great tips for peer-to-peer, interpersonal communications.
- Meet privately: Address the recipient of the feedback one-on-one. Privacy helps prevent embarrassment, and it also eliminates distractions.
- Begin with appreciation, humility and empathy: Thank the person for meeting with you, and explain that you know how difficult the issue at hand can be. Praise anything that can be praised before moving into the criticism. Explain the issue that is of concern and, if applicable, admit to any fault that you might share in the issue.
- Use specific examples of unacceptable behavior: The feedback recipient should be reminded of a recent, specific example of behavior that was not acceptable.
- Focus on the impact of the actions: Make sure that the person receiving the feedback understands why she needs to change her behavior (e.g. because it’s losing the company money, because it negatively impacting other peoples’ work, etc.). Explain how the behavior makes you feel.
- State your expectations moving forward: Communicate the changes you expect to see moving forward. It can be helpful to brainstorm potential solutions together, or ask how you specifically can help them achieve their goals.
- State your consequences: Let them know what could happen if the behavior continues. For example, someone’s brusque tone could alienate other team members or even how customers think about the company.
- Allow the other person to save face: Be gentle and empathetic—it’s hard to receive criticism! Leave the meeting with a smile and no indication to anyone else as to the topic of the meeting, and allow them to take the lead on addressing the issue with other team members or if they want to work on it privately.
- Praise any and all improvements: Be sure to communicate when you observe positive changes. This shows your team member that their hard work is seen, and that you’re paying attention!
Just as important as giving great feedback is receiving feedback correctly. John Ford, Founder and Principal Mediator at the HR Mediation Academy, shared his thoughts with us on accepting feedback:
Feedback is vital for the well being of any important relationship, yet fraught with difficulty, especially in the receiving, because of our propensity to perceive it as an attack. When you remember that the purpose behind feedback is learning (not to embarrass or humiliate) it's easier to receive it non-defensively and assume that the person giving it has a positive intention. As with all key conversations, it's always a good idea to summarize at the end to confirm your understanding of the feedback given.
–John Ford, HR Mediation Academy
While this approach to receiving feedback can be broadly applied to all workforce members, there are a few additional considerations based on your role.
Supervisors, for example, should be especially sensitive to the fact that they have a certain degree of power over their subordinates. Supervisors should recognize that it’s extremely difficult and even scary for their team members to provide critical feedback if they fear retaliation. 🤐
For this reason, supervisors should actively solicit the feedback and let their staff know that it’s okay for them to voice their concerns. Then, regardless of the content of the feedback they’ve received, supervisors should show gratitude and encouragement for teams’ transparent communication.
On an organization-wide level, consider implementing pulse surveys—whether anonymous or not—to get frequently, timely feedback from your employees.
By providing a psychologically safe workplace and a culture of constructive feedback in their departments, teams can capitalize on valuable learning opportunities and chances to improve.
In the end, my best advice is to always assume the best intentions! Unless you’re working on improving a toxic workplace, chances are that everyone on your team wants the best for the company. Listen—giving and receiving feedback is hard! But, the payoff includes better team communication and even more opportunities to recognize hard work.
For more best practices on how to effectively recognize and engage employees, check out our Guide to Modern Employee Recognition!