Why is it so hard to give constructive feedback?

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This article has been authored by Dr Elaine Dutton, CSB Group’s Head of Human Resources and Employment Advisory Services.

One of the most common hesitations among managers, is how to give negative feedback to a member of their team. Let’s face it – nobody likes being the bearer of ‘bad’ news – especially when such information can determine the career development of another individual.

Even when the issues are glaringly obvious, a number of managers find it hard to be honest with the employee in question and point at where they are falling short of expectations. The reasons for this can be multiple. Some may fear that giving negative feedback might demoralise the underperforming employee even further. There seems to be this misconception that people thrive only on praise and that anything negative could be demotivating. On the other hand, some managers may avoid giving negative feedback due to a fear of tarnishing the good relationships with their team members and risking becoming unpopular – “will my team members still like me if I tell them that their attitude or behaviour is sub-par?”

In some situations, managers may dodge anything remotely confrontational, because disharmony makes them uncomfortable. The knowledge that they have to convey information that causes others discomfort puts them in an anxious state of mind. This often results in shelving the conversation for ‘the right time’ – not realising, or maybe not acknowledging, that the stars rarely align to provide this perfect time window. Suddenly weeks turn into months and it feels petty to dredge up a situation that happened 6 months previously, leading to the issue to never be fully addressed and the employee none the wiser.

Some managers may also over-empathise with the employee. All too ready to be in the shoes of the unperforming team member, these managers seem to forget that within the work environment, adults are accountable to their role and responsible for their own attitude and behaviour. Whilst empathy and compassion are essential ingredients in leadership and it is important to examine whether the organisational environment, the tools or processes are impacting the poor performance, attitude or behaviour of an employee – issues that point at improvement needing to come directly from the individual, cannot be ignored.  

The truth is that knowing where and how to improve is essential for career and personal development. Constructive feedback increases one’s self-awareness. It offers a mirror to our own behaviour and how we are perceived by others. It also points at tangible outcomes to work towards by showcasing where the gaps in our performance are and what we need to do to close that gap.

Often, there is a genuine worry that the employee will become defensive. However, it is also the case that the majority of employees yearn for genuine feedback that can help them improve. Research suggests that employees are more likely to be dissatisfied with the depth of feedback given by their managers on how they can bridge the gap pointed out in their performance appraisal, rather than being distraught by the negative feedback given. Whilst some employees do get defensive and may not be emotionally equipped to deal with criticism – it is also the case that some of this defensiveness may be a reaction to the manner the feedback is given, rather than the actual content or the behaviour put into question.

So, what does constructive feedback look like? Essentially it starts by being genuine and honest about what is not okay and realising that as the manager, it is your role to explain this to your team members and to help them improve. This is a fundamental task of being a manager that cannot be delegated to anyone else. The intention should not be to apportion blame, but pointing out clearly, with examples, what it is that needs to change and why. This feedback needs to be delivered in a manner that does not sound like an attack but that is cognisant of any effort on the part of the employee while explaining clearly where they are falling short.

However, for any feedback to be taken on board, there needs to be an underlying level of trust whereby the employee can be comfortable in the knowledge that the feedback the manager is giving, is not being said to harm or belittle. This level of trust is built slowly, by investing time to get to know team members and build a relationship with them, showcasing one’s commitment towards their improvement and growth. Rather than calling them for a meeting only when something is wrong, managers who are committed to the growth of their team members carry out frequent check-ins, provide and ask for feedback regularly and frequently remind their team of their accountability towards each other and the goals they are working towards.

Additionally, for feedback to be truly constructive, employees need to understand the bigger picture of why this conversation needs to be had and how the issue being discussed could have wider implications to the team or the business. Once this is established, the manager needs to assist the employee with a plan of action for things to improve. Ultimately as the word ‘constructive’ implies, the intention of the feedback is to rebuild and strengthen. Whilst there are various ways of detailing a plan of supportive action, many resort to drafting a performance improvement plan, or PIP as it is sometimes referred to in short. This document essentially details specifically what it is that the employee is being asked to improve, whether the employee will require any specific training or coaching and how much time will be given for the performance, attitude or behaviour to improve. A PIP would also ascertain when follow-up meetings would take place, how progress would be assessed and also what the consequences would be if there is no such progress.

What this means, is that the moment managers choose to offer regular constructive feedback, they have also committed themselves to assisting their employees to grow, and to be there to assist in their development. The reality is that everyone can criticise and point at what is wrong. It takes very little skill to carry out a performance appraisal by checking off boxes and bundling a year’s worth of ‘this could have been done better’ in one meeting. The hard part of providing feedback is in ensuring that the issues or perspective provided, are discussed in a manner that can be utilised constructively by the employee and then following through after the feedback has been given to coach and monitor progress. Constructive feedback therefore does not stop with that one-to-one or appraisal meeting, but is a constant journey and commitment in the career and personal growth of team members.

Dr Elaine Dutton is focused on developing and implementing the Group’s HR strategy, and also assists a portfolio of clients with, the Setting up of the HR function within an organisation, Mentoring of HR personnel, Performance management, Drafting of contracts and other HR documentation, Consultancy on disciplinary action and more. Dr Dutton may be contacted on info@csbgroup.com.

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