Originally Published on Forbes
Written By: Expert Panel, Forbes Coaches Council
Constructive criticism is much needed in the business world, but it isn’t always well-received. You might struggle to hear that you’re not succeeding in certain areas—and being the person who has to hand out these comments to others isn’t much easier.
Many business leaders worry about hurting their workers’ feelings or looking like the “bad guy” when giving less-than-stellar employee evaluations. However, doing so is necessary for that individual’s growth and your company’s overall success. Below, 15 members of Forbes Coaches Council explain how to give an employee tactful, constructive feedback without ruffling feathers.
1. Ask Permission First
When giving feedback, it’s best to ask for permission first. If you ask, “May I offer a suggestion here?” the recipient will be much more likely to actually hear what you have to say. That little moment of asking for permission allows the recipient to feel agency and creates a more open mindset when hearing the critique. - Alexandra Phillips, Alexandra Phillips Consulting LLC
2. Focus On What You’re Trying To Achieve
Think about the ultimate outcome you are trying to achieve by sharing the feedback. Articulate what the benefit is to the other person if they take the feedback to heart, and express that you are willing to support them in reaching that outcome. Then the feedback is less about what they did “wrong” and more about finding a solution and potentially working together to make meaningful changes. - Tonya Echols, Vigere
3. Avoid The Word ‘But’
Many leaders give positive feedback tied to constructive criticism as a softer approach. However, they employ a fatal flaw when doing so: the word “but.” We instinctually negate anything before it as an unauthentic setup to the harshness that follows it. Use the word “and” to be heard and tie the critique to desired behavior or change. - Lisa K McDonald, Career Polish, Inc.
4. Build Up An ‘Emotional Bank’ First
Leaders should be aware of the importance of building an “emotional bank” with their team members. By giving authentic, positive feedback throughout the year when your employee does well you will have made several “deposits” into their bank, which builds trust and positive regard. When the time comes to give constructive feedback, they are willing to listen and make the changes needed. - Loren Margolis, Training & Leadership Success LLC
5. Focus On Mutually Agreed-Upon Goals
Providing constructive criticism can be transformed into an opportunity to realign behaviors with shared goals for a person’s work. This happens when goals are clearly communicated and agreed upon by a leader and the team. When goals are clear, feedback can become a collaborative conversation about making adjustments to the actions someone is (or is not) taking to accomplish the agreed-upon goals. - TC Cooper, UpwardAction® LLC
6. Ask For Their Opinion
Focus on a specific behavior. Bridge the gap between where the person is versus where you want the person to be by giving clear advice. Emphasize your belief in their capability of achieving the goal. Stay aware of how you craft your message; invite the person to the conversation by asking powerful questions like, “What is your opinion on this?” - Kasia Jamroz, Conscious Leading Solutions L.L.C.
7. Create A Clear Feedback Process For Everybody
Leaders must not create the impression that feedback is not fair and that critiques are not fairly applied. Create a repeatable pattern, a system and perhaps a feedback form for everyone. This demonstrates and validates a process and creates less anxiety about unfairness. It’s not perfect, but even small companies can maintain a clear feedback process for everyone. Uniformity may seem boring, but it works. - John M. O’Connor, Career Pro Inc.
8. Frame It As Something They Can Do ‘Even Better’
Ideally, feedback is given in a culture where it’s normal to offer constructive support while noticing when people do good things, too. When giving feedback, allow the other person to consider it without feeling defensive, and allow yourself the appropriate courage to share by offering “one thing you could do even better.” - Jane Viljoen, Best Hopes Coaching and Consulting USA/UK
9. Give Feedback In The Moment Whenever Possible
Providing constructive criticism is healthy, but it can feel like a conflict. However, you owe it to your team members to provide in-the-moment, direct, focused and actionable feedback to help them identify where they can improve their performance and contribute more effectively to the team. Practiced frequently, it becomes a comfortable part of your culture. Provide positive feedback in the same way. - Lianne Lyne, PLP Coaching, LLC
10. Remind Them That Feedback Is An Investment In Their Potential
If they know you are investing in them because you see great things, they will see the feedback differently and not as criticism. We tend to focus on the problem when offering feedback. The farthest we get in those conversations is “the fix.” People rarely focus on the potential of a person and what happens when they reach that potential. - Brad Federman, F&H Solutions Group
11. Combine Empathy With Explanation
In order to be constructive, use both empathy and explanation. Instead of just critiquing, it is important to show why the undesired behavior is bad for business and how the desired behavior is both good for the person and the business. You want to be candid and transparent, but remaining empathetic ensures the entire conversation can remain positive. - Donald Hatter
12. Assume Good Intentions
Address the issue directly and work to find a solution together. If you assume the other person has good intentions, it will automatically change your language and attitude. For example, if someone comes in late, instead of saying, “You’re lazy,” turn it into a productive conversation by saying, “I noticed you’ve been coming in late; is there something preventing you from being on time?” - Monisha Toteja, Dynamic Speaking
13. Use The Sandwich Approach
When you need to “tune up” a team member, start with a compliment first. Let them know they are needed and appreciated, then discuss their shortcoming and what they can do to fix it. Follow up with another compliment, and use future pacing to let them know that they have a place there in the future. This delivers your message with compassion while reinforcing their value to the company. - Mitch Russo, Mindful Guidance, LLC
14. Get Curious
Ask the employee, “What’s one area of your professional life you’d like to grow or improve in?” Start the conversation here and ask questions around the topic the employee brought up. It could be that this isn’t an area that you had thought of. And if you help them grow in this area, you will have created a foundation for future constructive conversations. They may even ask your thoughts on this. - Frances McIntosh, Intentional Coaching LLC
15. Be Respectful And Clear
There is an over-emphasis on “feelings” in the workplace lately, and it has impacted the willingness of leaders to deliver clear and helpful criticism. Leaders need to be prepared to ruffle feathers, and employees need to develop thicker skins. Leaders should, of course, be respectful and clear, but holding back will not serve anyone. The best employees ask for feedback and accept it as a gift. - Warren Zenna, Zenna Consulting Group