How to Give Valuable and Constructive Feedback

10 min


There is a science to giving feedback, it is a communication form that requires a considered and empathic approach. In the job that we do at CSG and within recruitment in general it is important to be able to say difficult messages well. In an organisation, the ability to give valuable and constructive feedback can positively impact business operations and the fact is, employees want to receive it. A PwC survey showed that 60% of respondents would like to receive feedback on a daily or weekly basis, that number increases to 72% for employees under the age of 30. Additionally, more than 75% find feedback valuable so it’s concerning to then realise that less than 30% said they actually receive it. This could be attributed to the fact that, according to the Harvard Business Review, 69% of managers try to avoid communicating negative information, 37% won’t give critical feedback at all and an alarming two-thirds of managers are uncomfortable communicating with employees.

Constructive feedback can help employees, colleagues and even leaders to improve and enrich the relationships in the team and increase productivity and performance. According to Gallup, managers who receive feedback showed 8.9% greater profitability. Giving your team constructive feedback is important to let them know how they’re performing and what’s expected of them, it supports your team’s learning and development. Additionally, don’t forget the positive feedback too, praise is just as important where it’s due, with 69% of employees saying they would work harder if they felt their efforts were better recognised.

The catch is, feedback only works if the ones receiving it are willing to accept it and grow from it. This is hugely dependant on how that feedback is delivered, so how can you best approach constructive feedback that addresses issues or shortcomings staff need to improve on? Equally, how do you give valuable feedback that acknowledges successes and encourages repeated behaviour moving forward?

Many have addressed this, including Cognitive psychologist LeeAnn Renninger who has done extensive research into the secret of giving great feedback. Study after study provides insightful findings which provide the foundation of the following suggested approach to delivering valuable and constructive feedback. There are some ground rules to providing feedback that should be kept in mind first and foremost.

1. Give it at the right time – It’s best to give praise when the achievement has happened or is still relevant, however you also don’t want to rush to give negative feedback without having had time to reflect and ensure your feedback is objective.
2. It should come from a level of empathy – Put yourself in the other person’s shoes, understand their situation and the impact your feedback is going to have on them. Delivering feedback that is considered critical of another’s knowledge or performance demands a measure of sensitivity and understanding of any shock or resistance as a response.
3. Be sincere – Be conscious of your tone and manner in context of the feedback itself. If the feedback is positive then your emotions can indicate that you appreciate their efforts. If it is negative, your concern will dictate that the problem should be taken seriously. In the work setting be sure to avoid displaying emotions such as anger, sarcasm or disappointment in these situations.
4. Be aware of your nonverbal communication – This is any form of communication that doesn’t involve speaking, like your body language, facial expressions or tone of voice. All of which can cause miscommunication if you are not consistent in your approach.
5. Try not to use technology – Sharing feedback through email, text message or even phone can lead to misinterpretation and can make your feedback seem less than important then it really is. It is always best to speak in person if possible.

Baring all of this in mind, if there is a need to give feedback the following steps will help in your delivery.

Step 1: Ask a short question
It seems like a simple thing but asking the recipient a short question related to the feedback acts as a pacing tool. This allows the other person to know feedback is coming and be mentally ready to receive it. Sometimes the easiest question to ask is their permission to provide feedback, this creates a moment of buy-in for the recipient to say yes or no, if they say no, be sure to ask them when and how they’d like to receive it. This approach makes it solicited feedback and alleviates any stress of receiving unsolicited feedback. Additionally, this gives the control to your employee and increases the likelihood they will act on the feedback you share. Some examples are:
- “Can I share some ideas that I have about the presentation?”
- “Can we have a chat about what just happened?”
- “Do you have some time to talk about the meeting yesterday?”

Step 2: Provide context – be specific and objective
Start by identifying the situation, when giving feedback it’s important to be specific in what behaviour you are addressing. By providing the person with a reference point, you can give a specific example of when they may have demonstrated the behaviour in question.

Constructive feedback in its nature is focused on outcomes and impartial observations. When communicating the behaviour, be clear and objective and focus on the actions that they took, not on their personality. Feedback that is centred on the individual’s character and personality is often motivated by personal feelings, rather than objective facts. It is crucial to focus on the facts and not be driven by emotion. Too often feedback is described through emotion and interpretation of people’s behaviour, by being objective and impartial in your observations you are able to focus on the facts rather than your interpretation of them.

The end goal of giving feedback is to find ways to help someone. Whether that be to help them understand something they are good at or identify an opportunity to improve. It should be solutions oriented, clear and to the point. If your intention is to offer constructive feedback, then you need to be specific and objective in what you are referring to. If you are vague in your approach, it can leave employees confused and unsure of what aspects of their work need to be correct or which behaviours you want them to keep repeating. However, if you provide context that is clear, specific, detailed and objective, you will be able to pinpoint what you want the other person to increase or diminish and it will be far easier for them to take the feedback and turn it into action. Below are some examples:
- Instead of saying “You aren’t reliable,” say "You said you'd get that email to me by 11, and I still don't have it yet.”
- Instead of saying “I think the presentation yesterday wasn’t very clear,” say “During yesterday’s presentation, I thought it would be helpful if you had paused more for questions.”
- Instead of saying “You did such a great job,” say “It was great when you shared that idea in the meeting yesterday.”

Step 3: Highlight the impact
Once you’ve described the behaviour and provided context, the next step is to point out the direct impact that resulted from said behaviour. This is an important part because it helps the person understand why you are raising this feedback and the effect it has on you and/or the rest of the business. Be big picture focused and focus on the impact of their actions, this really helps to highlight the scope of impact and the more specific you make this, the more actionable it will be. Ultimately this will provide a sense of purpose, meaning and logic between all the points discussed which is something our brains crave when it comes to feedback. Some examples are:
- "Because I didn't get the message, I was unable to move forward with my work.”
- "I really liked how you added those stories, because it helped me grasp the concepts faster."
- “When you called the meeting to an end without leaving time for discussion, it made me feel like you did not value the team’s input”

Step 4: Make it a two-way street and end on a question
Once you’ve said what you have to say, it’s important to give the other person space to react and provide input. By pausing and asking a question, the conversation is no longer a monologue, but rather opens the opportunity for it to become a joint problem-solving situation. This creates a sense of commitment rather than just compliance. With this comes the need for you to listen to what they have to say, when you’re giving constructive feedback, it should be a conversation between you both and by opening up the conversation it shows you are prepared to listen to their concerns and their interpretation of events. This is also an opportunity for the other person to express their ideas and become part of the solution.

This approach also creates space in case the feedback has not been well received. One of the challenges with real time feedback is you never know exactly how the other person will respond, by asking them a question to finish your feedback it opens up the opportunity for them to choose how to end the conversation, whether that be a brainstorm on actionable solutions right there and then or suggesting to follow up later, you’ve given them control to make that decision which empowers them further. Some examples of what you can say are:
- “How do you see it?”
- "This is what I'm thinking we should do, but what are your thoughts on it?"

By being considered, thoughtful and empathic while following these four steps, you will be able to give valuable and constructive feedback to anyone. It is important to follow up to show appreciation when you notice improvement along the way. This reinforces that you care about their success and it will help motivate them to keep up the great work. 

Last but certainly not least, the greatest feedback given not only can deliver messages well, but they ask for feedback and they ask for it regularly. LeeAnn Renninger’s research on perceived leadership describes the concept of push feedback, where you wait for feedback to be given to you, however pulling feedback is when we actively ask for feedback. The latter establishes you as a continual learner and puts the power in your hands, so don’t be afraid to start pulling.

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