Careers advice: Giving your team constructive feedback

26 May 2022

Summer is traditionally the season when many companies undertake their performance reviews. This can raise the issue of how managers can best deliver constructive feedback, writes Caroline Egan, Alumni Careers Manager.

Caroline has previously addressed the employee’s perspective in how to get the most from your performance review. However, the focus in this blog is on the manager's role in giving constructive feedback, aided by insights taken from the 2019 best-selling book, ‘The Making of a Manager’ by Julie Zhou, former VP of Product Design at Facebook.

When is the best time to give constructive feedback?

Zhou advises that the annual performance review is not the appropriate time for giving constructive feedback to team members. The content of an annual performance review should not come as a surprise to either managers in a coaching culture, or their direct reports, but needs to take place in a context in which a manager has already built a strong relationship with their team members.

Developing a trusting relationship

In order for managers to empower their team to achieve its goals, both as individuals and as a group, it’s essential from the outset that they have developed trusting relationships with each team member, and understand their strengths, interests, values, motivations and career goals, based on their own first-hand experience of asking them questions, and observing and listening to their responses, rather than what they have heard from others.

Zhou writes in her book that the most authentic leaders are those who show their staff that they care about what happens to them, are prepared to go out of their way to support them, and help develop them to fulfil their potential and achieve their career goals, at the same time as achieving the team’s goals. Ideally, before giving constructive feedback, a manager will have built a trusting relationship with their direct report through regular meetings and 1 to 1s. They will have been able to discuss the challenges the team member faces, how the manager can help them, and where they have both felt able to give one another regular positive and constructive feedback on minor issues, rather than waiting for an annual performance review to raise larger issues for the first time.

Creating a feedback culture

However, many managers are extremely busy with their own workload and find they have limited time for their additional people management responsibilities. Instead, they save constructive feedback for the annual performance review. However, Julie Zhou explains that feedback is one of the most powerful tools you can use to help your team members grow. She writes that “feedback is a gift”,  and one of the most fundamental aspects of the job of a manager, so needs to be afforded greater attention in a busy schedule.

How can managers change this situation going forward and deliver feedback at a more appropriate time, without provoking a defensive response from their team member? Zhou recommends a number of techniques:

Ways to inspire a change in behaviour

  • Set expectations for your team at the start: address what a great job looks like, compared with a mediocre or bad job
  • Agree a charter of team values to which you can refer when challenging inappropriate behaviour
  • Give task-specific feedback as frequently as you can: via email, or preferably in person, within a day of the relevant action or task
  • Write down difficult feedback so you know exactly what you are going to say and are not tempted to say too much, too little, or something different ‘in the moment’
  • Share behavioural feedback thoughtfully and regularly: record the feedback you give and try to connect the dots over time. Work out what themes emerge over time, and make sure your words are thoughtfully considered and supported with specific examples. It’s best to share behavioural feedback in person so the receiver can respond.
  • When addressing it in person, it’s unlikely that you will be the first person to have noticed the behaviour on the part of the person in question, or that they will be completely unaware of the issue (as it may have been mentioned to them previously) so one of the techniques Zhou suggests in her book is as follows:
    1. State the context of your observation
    2. State the facts you observed
    3. State your concern about the impact of their behaviour/actions (on team goals, morale, feelings…) and then ask ‘Does that resonate with you?

The latter is a way of inviting their comments on what you have said without making them feel attacked, making it clear you’re prepared to listen to ‘their side of the story’, as well as asking tactfully whether anyone else has brought this to their attention before.

  • The final step you can take is to model the behaviour you seek by asking for feedback from your team. This can be done formally through a 360° exercise or informally at 1 to 1s and team meetings. This shows you value self-awareness and feedback about yourself, and can model dealing with it and acting on it effectively. You can then invite your team members to collect their own 360-degree style feedback for maximum objectivity and ask them to share that with you. This will help you get a more complete and objective view of how they are progressing.

It’s clear that mastering the art of giving feedback can achieve much broader aims than the mere feedback itself. As Zhou says:

“Mastering [the art of feedback] means that you can knock down two of the biggest barriers preventing your reports from doing great work —  unclear expectations and inadequate skills —  so that they know exactly where to aim and how to hit the target…”

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