5 fast facts for providing constructive feedback

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  1. Always have a goal in mind. What do you want to achieve? With the goal in mind, plan out how you should best go about providing the feedback. Generally there are three possible desirable outcomes from providing feedback:
  1. Resolving problems – helping the individual solve a problem related to their work – this is often referred to in leadership as ‘task facilitation’.
  2. Supporting performance – often referred to as ‘mentoring’, this involves providing guidance and assistance in ‘how best to get something done’.
  3. Teaching – actually helping the individual learn how best to achieve something.
  4. Adjusting performance – confronting a performance issue.


  1. Have a forward (future) focus. Whilst feedback, by its very definition, involves looking at the past, feedback is only helpful when it is used to determine what needs to be done differently in the future. A ‘future orientation’ (what can we do about this) is much more constructive than a ‘past orientation’ (you did this) one. Focus on what can be done better rather than what is wrong. The past is just that – it’s gone, but the future is what can change.


  1. Be specific and descriptive. All too often, feedback and ideas for the future are too vague. A classic example is when a manager says to an employee “you’ve got to be show more commitment”. For the individual to be able to do something with this information, they need to know what commitment actually looks like. Ask yourself the question (in this example) “what will I want to see this person doing for me to think that they have greater commitment?” This is particularly important if providing feedback about ‘attitudes’ or ‘behaving to the organization’s core values’. If you want the person to be ‘a better team player’, then describe what this actually looks like and make sure the individual understand this.


  1. Listen to the other person’s agenda. When confronting a performance issue, it is inevitable that the employee will see the issue from a different perspective to the manager. Whilst the manager might see these as ‘excuses’ or ‘irrelevancies’, they are real to the employee. Ignoring them simply results in compliance rather than commitment, with no subsequent real improvement. Genuinely listening to the other person’s ‘agenda’ open up the conversation for potential problem-solving discussion, which is far more likely to actively involve the other person as opposed to being ‘lectured to’ about some deficiency. If you can solve the problem from the employee’s perspective, then you have a very elegant solution. If however, once you have discussed the issue in this way and see that your agenda is not being met, then carefully reintroduce the issue from your perspective. As you now have the employee actively involved in a discussion, and he/she has seen that you are interested in his/her perspective, you are more likely to arrive at a workable solution.


  1. Use feedback to build positive relationships. Even in an adjusting performance discussion, the goal should always be to ensure that a positive relationship is maintained between the manager and the employee. Any feedback discussion that results in a lessening of this is a failure. This begins with the manager’s attitude. It ends with the manager ensuring that the individual involved has been listened to and involved, rather than lectured to or told off. ‘Confronting performance’ is different to ‘being confrontational’ and ‘giving feedback’ is different to ‘telling someone off’. Remember the goal of giving feedback is improved performance and that requires the commitment rather than compliance on the part of the employee. He or she needs to walk away thinking “that was helpful to me”.


About the author

Shaun McCarthy is Chairman and Director Human Synergistics International



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