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This is the most effective way to deliver feedback

It can be scary to receive feedback. Here’s how you can make your notes for improvement more forgiving and effective.

This is the most effective way to deliver feedback
[Photo: rawpixel]

Receiving feedback can be scary. And of course, it’s worse when you know the feedback is going to be negative. The experience can make you feel called out, inferior to your coworkers, or incompetent at your job.

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But feedback is often necessary in order for an individual (or team) to make progress. Without good, frequent feedback from managers, employees are unlikely to improve on their own. Or at least, it is likely improvement will take longer.

There’s a risk to providing too much feedback, according to some research—especially if it’s not delivered carefully. And research shows that people can grow the most when their strengths are recognized. So how should managers deliver information in a way that leads to signs of real change without deflating workers? Consider a few of these strategies:

Build from a foundation of trust

To properly deliver feedback, your employees must feel an underlying sense of trust has been established. This sort of strong relationship does not arise over night; instead it will take time to ensure your connection is authentic.

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As a person delivering feedback, you can build trust by talking to your employees regularly. Paul McDonald, a senior director at staffing company Robert Half, has managed different groups throughout his career and currently oversees the mentorship and collaboration of a team of 15 to 20 individuals. McDonald says he speaks to his workers openly and often.

Frequent and predictably-timed communication makes for a more fluid exchange between himself and his reports, no matter whether the conversation is positive or negative. “Regular communication builds trust,” he says. “When employees trust me, I’ve found that [we] can look at areas of opportunity because they know my style and . . . the way the meeting cadence is going to take place.”

Effective communicators know that they should be aware of how they speak—including the tone they use. If you are too overzealous, your reports will no longer be receptive to what you’re telling them. Moreover, if managers’ written communication is not working, they must be willing to adjust.

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Deliver your words directly

Next, it’s important to be clear in your feedback and don’t leave anything up to interpretation or speak obscurely.

“When employees are left to their own devices . . . their thoughts can go to a negative place,” says McDonald.

This is doubly true when you’re delivering negative feedback. Otherwise workers may get things mixed up or not get the message. In the latter case, this may mean you have to reiterate and rephrase your comments, and you risk surprising your employee.

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Further, the best way to make sure your employee received your message is follow up. McDonald shares that he often tries his best to follow up in the medium his employees prefer the most. When delivering negative feedback, he will call a second meeting, when the employee is “feeling better emotionally,” he says. “That’s where I back it up with writing, [like] email. They have specific instructions, goals, and tactics…in order to get to the next level.”

Set aside enough time to talk

When delivering feedback, it’s important you’re not being inconsiderate or flip with your delivery. In order to get your message across successfully and with care, you need to block enough time on your schedule and avoid distractions. “[Show] an empathetic side,” says McDonald.

Be mindful of your criticism frequency

It’s important not to always point out the negative when you’re a leader. Yes, as a manager it feels natural to constantly want to improve and ask your reports to do more. But inevitably, this tendency can lead to an employee impression that you’re never satisfied.

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As Fast Company cofounder Bill Taylor wrote in Harvard Business Review a decade ago, “Leaders who engage in relentless fault-finding can’t help but lead to a culture of bloodless execution. [Those] who celebrate small acts of kindness . . . who reward moments of connection give everyone permission to look for opportunities to have a genuine human aspect.”

The worst case scenario for a company is “safe silence” from employees, wrote David Dye and Karin Hurt, whose book Courageous Cultures was featured in Fast Company. Safe silence is when workers, instead of speaking their minds and countering their bosses’ potentially flawed viewpoints, choose to say nothing.

People remember the tough, traumatic times more than the good. Research has shown there is a residual effect to hearing negative comments repeatedly. Employees who received a negative email from an employer one time, often anticipated that future emails would be similarly distressing (in other words, feeling anticipatory stress or “vigilance of threat”). If you make yourself out to be the bearer of bad news and bad feelings one time, your staff may anticipate future interactions to be similarly negative.

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With tough conversations, it’s key to get through to your conversation partner and not inundate them with negativity—or you risk them becoming “blocked,” as McDonald phrases it.

“If you think bad things are going to happening, and then [bad] things do happen, that stress gets enunciated, [you will feel] a more pronounced reaction to it,” says Brooks Gump, a professor at Syracuse University who has researched people’s reactions to stress.

It’s not to say you should never give negative feedback, but make sure that you’re also finding instances to complement work that is well done.

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About the author

Diana is an assistant editor for Fast Company's Work Life section. Previously, she was an editor at Vice and an editorial assistant at Entrepreneur

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