The Art of Giving Constructive Feedback
Why Bother Being Constructive?
Anybody in a leadership position is responsible for making sure a certain mission or vision is accomplished by a group of people. Whether it is a teacher teaching students, a CEO running a company, or a manager managing employees, they do whatever it takes. In order to be successful, it is necessary to correct mistakes made by members of the group. That's where the importance of giving constructive feedback comes in. Simply correcting the error doesn't cut it. Without a tactful explanation that fosters mutual understanding, there is no positive learning experience or resultant progress. You have to correct the error in such a way that the person understands what happened so that their performance later can improve and, ultimately, you can make greater progress toward achieving the goal for which the leader is primarily responsible. Not only that, but if the information delivered is ill-received by the learner, that may lead to division and insubordination that impedes the entire process. In a way, giving constructive feedback is not so much a task as it is an art. And it's potential payoff is huge.
Constructive, Not Critical
Is "constructive criticism" an oxymoron? It depends on the connotation with which one chooses to take the word "criticism." In its essence, to criticize is to do nothing more than to correct. It means there is something that is wrong, and it is being addressed. However, that's only half of what's going on when giving constructive feedback. There's that other word: "constructive." This implies not only a correction, but a correction made in a way that encourages progress and development. This also requires knowing your audience, because everyone responds to feedback differently. Instead of going through every exception to the rule, let's take a look at the basic format to use as a guideline when giving constructive feedback to someone.
The first few words that come out of your mouth when starting any conversation have an astronomical impact on setting the tone for the whole interaction. If the idea is to be giving constructive feedback, you want to set the stage with some positivity. Important: This is not counting the small talk you may have before getting down to the nitty gritty of why you called them over. As soon as you begin with the feedback portion of your conversation, that's where the "starting positive" begins. Tell the person what you like about what they have been doing lately. Let them know you notice and appreciate their hard work. If you start right off with pointing out their faults, they may not even hear anything else you have to say. It could even stain your relationship with them, as well as keep you both from being as efficient as possible in achieving the goal. Giving constructive feedback always begins (and ends) with positive energy.
Now for the Criticism (Remember, Constructive!)
Even if you do not consider yourself to be a naturally charismatic or tactful person, starting off positive will always make this part of giving constructive feedback a lot easier on both the giver and the receiver. It is important to realize that everyone takes criticism differently and to modify your approach based on what you know about your audience. Here are some helpful tips to keep in mind:
1) Some people you will have to go easier on than others in order to get the desired response of changed behavior. You may want to prioritize and unload your corrections in order of importance over the course of several conversations, rather than all at once.
2) Other people will have appear to have no qualms whatsoever, but beware. Just because someone seems to take it well doesn't necessarily mean that they did. Being corrected is tough to swallow for everyone to some degree. Continue to demonstrate understanding, even for people with tougher skin.
3) Do not only report what the person did wrong, but why it was wrong and how they can do it better next time. This will promote deeper understanding and learning for the listener.
4) Ask the person what he/she thinks about it. You may use a question like: "How do you think this could be made better?" This encourages a collaborative, teamwork approach that actually involves the person giving constructive feedback to themselves. They may even take the words right out of your mouth!
5) Maintain appropriate eye contact. I didn't say have a staring contest. Just let the person know that you are engaged in the conversation and you consider this time to be important. It will be another reminder to them that you care.
It's just like an oreo; or a sandwich; or a burger; or for that matter, anything that has the same thing at the beginning and end with something different in the middle! You finish the same way you started: with POSITIVE feedback. This leaves the conversation on a good note so the receiver can exit without feeling deflated. Ultimately, this will keep them motivated to carry on and keep working hard to the goal your group/company/classroom has established as its mission. That is the mark of a truly successful session of giving constructive feedback.