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Your constructive feedback helps no one if you trigger this emotional reaction

Your great feedback makes no impression without being mindful of this universal human trait.

Your constructive feedback helps no one if you trigger this emotional reaction
[Photo: Gift Habeshaw/Unsplash]

If you take a scroll through your LinkedIn feed, you’ll likely notice a trend: former employees relaying cautionary tales about how they were mistreated by companies who shamed them for minor mistakes or during performance reviews.

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When I read posts like these, I recall my own experience as a junior developer who often felt defeated after receiving negative feedback.

When creating my company 16 years ago, I promised myself one thing: I’d be an ally, not a critic, to my team.

Now more than ever, feedback and career development opportunities are a crucial aspect of retaining employees during the Great Resignation. Look at this way: Shame will spread throughout your organization like wildfire, killing your culture.

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Ensuring feedback is delivered in a constructive, positive manner can mean the difference between a confident employee and a discouraged one.

Your feedback should inspire confidence

In an article, “The Delicate Art of Giving Feedback,” by Harvard Business Review contributor, Robert C. Pozen, notes that “negative feedback can have significant adverse effects on an employee’s well-being–and, presumably, their productivity.” This is not surprising given the fact that we are wired to be impacted by unfavorable events, rather than positive ones.

As a young man working at a large internet media company, I witnessed several colleagues come back with tear-filled eyes after a performance review. I, myself, wasn’t immune to managerial criticism either. I’d find it hard to focus on my tasks afterward, or would start procrastinating on a project. “If you criticize your employees, you will likely provide some corrective information, but you will also put your employee in a bad mood,” writes Pozen.

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As a CEO, I know how tempting it can be to offer corrections when mistakes are made. I also know that there is a delicate line between shaming an employee and building them up. My goal is to do the latter. Here are some ways I’ve put this into practice.

Give general observations (not critiques)

Believe it or not, but some of the most insightful lessons I’ve learned have actually come from my role as a parent. Primarily, when it comes to adopting more patience and understanding. When my children were younger and misbehaved, I’d make the mistake of scolding them—which only led to tears and tantrums. I soon realized this wasn’t the right approach at all.

I can’t take all the credit for my change in behavior—my wife and I would read parenting books and podcasts, and together we learned from experts that “scolding” only made kids distrustful and feel ashamed. Our approach now? We speak to them on their level and talk things through. We let them know we’re not mad, and that we seek to understand their perspective.

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Don’t get me wrong: I’m not comparing one’s team to one’s kids. What I am saying is that as a leader, I’ve learned better communication skills from being a parent, in all areas of my life.

As I sit with an employee and offer feedback, I refrain from critiquing, and start out by asking questions. I relay my honest observations about a situation and make sure to praise them for their efforts. More than anything, I want them to feel assured that I’m on their side, and that my desire is to support them the best way I can.

Show respect

Low confidence can define how an employee sees themselves; for example, they’ll stop sharing ideas with their teams. And it isn’t just critiques that causes a person to feel shame and frustration.

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When offering feedback, don’t patronize the person—where your comments seem “kind” on the surface but really convey your own superiority. For example, saying, “I know you don’t have a lot of experience in this…is disrespectful. Even if unintentionally, what you’re doing with comments like these is undermining their capability—effectively demoralizing them.

So, what to do instead? If mistakes were made, speak to them openly with the purpose of better understanding. This can involve brainstorming solutions together and allowing the employee to voice their concerns and opinions.

Remember: the meaning of “ally” means cooperating, not dictating.

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Celebrate achievements (both big and small)

It sounds like this should go without saying—giving praise where praise is due—but there are a surprising amount of leaders and managers who take celebrating achievements for granted. They erroneously think that the “win” itself is enough to make an employee feel valued. But they couldn’t be more wrong.

If you aren’t constantly putting this into practice—celebrating wins both big and small—then your employees will take any feedback you give them more harshly.

Whereas, if you’ve cultivated a habit of congratulating employees regularly, for their efforts, their creativity, and their ideas—you’re giving them the confidence boost needed to not dread any feedback you might offer down the line.

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Aytekin Tank is the founder and CEO of Jotform, a leading online forms SaaS solution.

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