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How to Give Feedback Without Hurting Anyone’s Feelings


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Sometimes we lose sight of how vital morale is to a company’s success.

Studies show that offices and businesses with high morale have more productive and efficient employees who put out a higher quality of work.

Additionally, if your company hits hard times, your employees may be more apt to jump in and provide the extra support it needs to survive. For example, the likelihood that anyone will work harder for the company is low when morale is low. On the flip side, when work morale is high, those same employees will likely help the company succeed.

Solid company morale will also help you attract and retain talented employees, lowering staff turnover. Employee morale is much higher when there is a healthy environment at work. In turn, this promotes positive energy and makes your employees an important part of the hiring process.

Lastly, positive employee morale helps reduce your business’s costs. It’s like a domino effect. The higher employee morale, the fewer workplace accidents, the fewer absences, and the lower the stress at work. Due to this, your team will require less paid time off.

The link between morale and feedback

People want to get better at what they do, and most people appreciate constructive advice to help them advance their knowledge, expertise and execution of ideas. But as studies show, not enough managers take the time to help their employees make these advances. A survey by Blue Bird Consulting reveals that only 1/3 of employees report receiving the feedback they need to develop their careers. And Gallup estimates the damage that can cause to a company’s bottom line:

  • The cost of lost productivity due to disengaged employees in the United States is $450-550 billion every year.
  • The likelihood of disengagement is 40% higher for employees who don’t receive feedback.
  • Recognition motivates 78% of employees.
  • When companies hire more skilled workers, they grow their revenue and profit margins by two times.

These facts demonstrate that creating and fostering an employee feedback culture is not just something to be done during annual performance reviews. Rather, employee feedback is important for performance management all year round.

But how can you give feedback at work without hurting morale? Here are some tips to help you do that.

Related: 6 Steps to Offering Tough Feedback, and Why It’s a Crucial Skill for Every Leader

1. Schedule regular one-on-one meetings with your team members

Having regular one-on-one meetings with your team members can help them feel valued and heard. As a result, they will be able to raise any issues they have. Moreover, you will be able to work with them on an ongoing basis to resolve any current or potential issues.

In the event that any further difficulties arise, you can also schedule an ad hoc one-to-one meeting with an employee. However, if you incorporate this type of discussion and feedback into your ongoing management style, it’s easier to keep the feedback constructive.

Overall, you can make your team members feel valued, respected, and listened to by holding regular meetings with them. Plus, they’re more likely to come to you with problems before they spiral out of control.

2. Give them a five-word review

Kayak.com CEO Paul English coined the 5 Word Review as a way to provide feedback that is quick, easy, and efficient.

It works like this:

  • Provide your team member with five words that describe them. There should be 2-3 positives and 2-3 negatives.
  • To review the words, meet somewhere casual, like a coffee shop.
  • Make sure they clearly understand the meaning of each word.

This method of giving feedback works well for a few reasons:

Genuine

Positive words should not be rushed. Then you’re just highlighting something you like about their work. It’s just as important to talk about the words you want more of than it is to talk about constructive criticism.

Meaningful

Your team member will get more out of your feedback if you take an hour to dive deeper into these five words.

Thematic

You’ve got to zoom out and look at high-level trends when you’re limited to one word per an aspect of feedback. As an example, what do they consistently do well, and what do they come up short on? That’s what they need to focus on so they keep doing the good and fix the bad stuff.

Because it’s so simple, you can do it anytime. As you notice trends in your team members’ work and behavior, you can give them feedback. Likewise, don’t be afraid to ask for a five-word review for yourself.

3. Clearly define what you want.

In order for your feedback to be effective, you must first state its constructive purpose. In other words, your feedback should clearly state what areas you think are critical to cover and why.

Choosing the right tone to start the conversation is critical — it will set the tone immediately. It will also allow your employees to anticipate what’s to come. Use expressions such as:

  • “I had some thoughts regarding…”
  • “There’s this specific issue I’d like to discuss with you…”
  • “I feel I need to let you know that…”

4. Don’t bother with feedback sandwiches.

Avoiding difficult conversations and delaying critical feedback is counterproductive. It is recommended not to wait more than 24 hours for feedback, as both the feedback giver and the receiver will selectively recall certain details.

According to VC Ben Horowitz of Andreessen Horowitz, a CEO’s ability to provide “high-frequency feedback” is a differentiating skill. “You should have an opinion on every forecast, every product plan, every presentation, and even every comment,” he advised. In addition to depersonalizing feedback, this continuous process will create an environment where people can discuss bad news without feeling uncomfortable.

According to Andreessen Horowitz, it’s imperative to avoid “shit sandwiches.” That is, sandwiching negative feedback with two slices of praise. He also has a simple rule about where feedback shouldn’t be given: “Don’t clown people in front of their peers.”

Taking a shot at people won’t highlight their most desirable qualities. It’s important to have two-way conversations when providing feedback. Keeping a 50-50 split between questions and statements in a feedback session is recommended by leadership coach Mark Murphy, author of Truth at Work: The Science of Delivering Tough Messages.

5. Think constructively.

Giving feedback to your employees is more than just praising them. The process also involves telling them when they have made mistakes.

Chastising your employees is not the right way to accomplish this. Generally, people try their best to do what they can. Therefore, if you reprimand your employees every time they make a mistake, your employees will run for the door.

Rather than criticizing your employees, provide them with constructive feedback and solutions. It makes your employees feel like you’re guiding them toward success instead of just listing their mistakes.

6. Stay positive but don’t overdo it.

Giving your employees constructive criticism is helpful, but not empty praise is not. Praise that does not come from the heart feels just as offensive as criticism that is overzealous. If you praise your employees unnecessarily and condescendingly, they’ll feel discouraged instead of inspired.

Rewarding hard work is key. It doesn’t boost morale to tell people their work is the best you’ve ever seen. In fact, it does the opposite.

In short, a job well done doesn’t deserve empty praise. In addition to not helping employee morale, it won’t help your bottom line either. This is a trap, so don’t fall for it.

7. Don’t make it personal.

Employees who feel they are being attacked or criticized personally will quickly become demotivated. Instead of focusing directly on the working practices of an individual, focus your conversations on the issue that needs to be addressed. Then, discuss how you can work together to address it.

As a result, their morale will be improved, and they will be better able to address the problems at hand.

8. Feed Forward.

Feedback is often based on looking back.

Feed Forward is a concept that looks ahead, and that’s what makes it powerful. In other words, these are “positive suggestions for the future.”

Feed Forward rules are simple:

  • Feedback about the past isn’t allowed.
  • There’s no judging or critiquing.

A simple process follows those rules:

  • To positively impact their lives, choose to change one behavior.
  • Explain this behavior to others.
  • Get two suggestions from your employees on how to change their behavior for the better.
  • Don’t make any comments about suggestions you hear. Take notes instead.
  • Thank everyone for their suggestions.
  • Continue to receive positive suggestions from the other team members.

These simple steps are completely different from how you usually give feedback. When you use Feed Forward, for instance, you can build on the experiences and ideas of the whole team.

As an added benefit, this trades judgments of the past for optimism about the future. And, it’s possible to take action on any of the takeaways from Feed Forwards since the future is not set in stone.

9. Be honest.

A great leader cares about their employees’ professional development. Giving constructive feedback with genuine care works wonders – even if it’s not what they want. Because it’s in their best interest, your employees will understand why you’re offering specific feedback.

Remember, it’s easy for people to detect when your caring attitude is fake. As long as they sense it from you, your feedback won’t have a meaningful and lasting impact.

Simply put, integrity and honesty are worth more than anything else.

10. Know your employees.

Ideally, you have a diverse team. That means they’re not homogenous. As such, you may have some team members who have thick skin — while others are more sensitive.

Get to know your team members during one-on-ones, informal chats during breaks, or socializing during office parties. Doing so allows you to know their personality types to deliver feedback appropriately.

Suppose that you need to offer constructive criticism to an employee who is likely to cry, be defensive, or get angry. You may need to dedicate a little extra time to preparing for the meeting. Specifically, plan how you will convey feedback and react to an employee’s response.

  • A calm and effective response should be given if the employee is angry or emotional.
  • As long as the employee speaks respectfully, listen to them.
  • It’s okay to end the meeting if the employee yells or acts inappropriately, but schedule a follow-up once emotions have subsided.
  • If the employee is too emotional to collaborate with you on the next steps, be prepared to arrange a follow-up meeting.
  • If the employee deflects blame or reacts defensively, address that behavior as well. Taking responsibility is key to helping the employee succeed, so note that defensiveness is holding the employee back from addressing other issues.
  • Discuss with the employee how they can hear constructive criticism more productively if they repeatedly react badly to it. Additionally, an HR representative might be able to help you improve your communication.

Related: Why You Need Diversity on Your Team, and 8 Ways to Build It

11. Don’t expect a response right away.

Giving feedback is more than just expressing yourself. Your employees need to be heard, too. Be silent while you wait for their response after giving your feedback.

If you notice that they are hesitant, ask them, “What do you think?” or “How would you feel about this?”

12. Be appreciative.

Appreciating an employee’s work is pure praise. By adding the why you’re giving constructive feedback. And, more importantly, a message that’s honest and valuable.

Don’t forget to show your appreciation when your employees do a great job, and always let them know how their work impacts the company’s overall success.

Related: Why Gratitude Makes Leaders More Effective

13. End on a high note.

As a final step, emphasize what’s going well to close any awkward discussions.

For example, you can recap your meeting’s positive aspects or encourage the next steps for improvement by reiterating what was positive. If you let your team members leave discussions with you on a high, instead of feeling like their efforts have been ripped apart, they’ll feel motivated. In addition, they’ll be more open to constructive criticism.



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