Six steps to taking the sting out of criticism

Fulfilment Week 4

Anxiety about giving colleagues negative feedback is one reason more than half of employees get no regular feedback at all. Vicky Grinnell-Wright of A Blueprint for Better Business and psychologist Sarah Rozenthuler offer tips for delivering constructive criticism.

Giving feedback can be daunting. A recent poll by A Blueprint for Better Business found that more than one in five of us actively avoids giving our colleagues negative feedback, while a further 25% worry that the feedback we give will not be well-received. This anxiety is perhaps the reason that 56% of working employees do not receive regular feedback of any kind.

However, well-timed and well-executed feedback has been shown to ensure that both givers and receivers of feedback are more fulfilled, empowered and energised. Studies demonstrate that engagement tends to increase after effective feedback; producing higher standards of work and better organisational performance. Yet companies are increasingly recognising that our established feedback practices of annual appraisals and static questioning are no longer – or perhaps never were – fit for purpose.

Getting feedback right is no small task, though. Anonymised forms and aggregated comments coordinated by a centralised HR department might give us the confidence to be bold and, sometimes, brutally honest, but does it lead to learning and growth? We all recognise that giving effective feedback involves challenging the recipient; but can we broach these topics without creating unhealthy conflict?

Different generations have different expectations from feedback and, from a sustainability perspective, it’s important for employees to feel that it is tailored to their needs. Boomers may more typically accept authority and seek solace in structure. Millennials on the other hand, seem to yearn for more informal conversations and feedback “on the fly” rather than receiving an accumulation of comments a few months down the line. They expect “real-time course correction”.

Cultural background also has an impact. For example, the American and the Dutch approaches of candour can be at odds with the British preferences for stiff upper lips, greater formality and deference to authority.

We also feel differently depending on who it is that we are giving feedback to. If we are feeding back downwards within a hierarchy we might feel concerned about the recipient’s feelings. Feeding back across might make us feel nervous, whilst feeding back upwards might cause anxiety.

Psychologist Sarah Rozenthuler has outlined some tools and techniques to help decrease anxiety and boost courage, no matter when, where, and to whom we are providing feedback. By following her top tips below, giving critical comments and effective insight may no longer seem like such a daunting task.

Tip 1: Do your prep

You need to prepare in two ways: by thinking through what you need to say to the recipient and when it will be best received; and by anticipating the feelings that you are going to experience during the process.

If you feel anxious, or think you may come across as judgemental, negative or wrong, consider writing down your opening line and any key messages you want to convey so that you don’t forget your “lines”. If there’s a difficult message that might be hard for the other person to hear, run it by a trusted colleague and get some feedback yourself.

If you’re concerned that the recipient might not be receptive to what you have to say, pick your moment carefully. You could choose to go off-site or to have the conversation over lunch in order to make it more relaxed.

Tip 2: Be specific  

Draw on observable data wherever possible. Sharing facts lowers the likelihood that the other person will get defensive and reject what you say. Rather than speaking in general terms, state precisely the behaviour or attitude that you want to highlight so that the receiver understands what they need to do for future success.

Instead of saying “You lack edge”, say “When you stayed silent for the first ten minutes of the sales meeting, the customer stopped responding”.
Replace “Your social skills are very good”, by saying, “When you asked everyone to state their best outcome for the meeting, it got everyone engaged right at the start.” Being specific about what the individual did or didn’t do well, and the impact this had, makes it more likely that he or she can apply this insight in the future.

Tip 3: Keep it balanced

We all need positive reinforcement as well as critical insight. Optimal feedback needs to have a balance of both support and challenge. Sports psychologists make a distinction between:

–       Motivational feedback, which encourages the individual to keep going or do more of what they’re already doing.

–       Developmental feedback, which points the way to what the individual needs to do differently in order to improve performance.

Motivational feedback often works well immediately after an event, ie after a team member has given an excellent presentation. Developmental feedback, on the other hand, is best given once the person has had time to digest what happened, so perhaps a few days after an unsuccessful sales meeting. Be careful not to mention too much developmental feedback at once: more sustainable results are generated if we can focus on changing one behaviour at a time.

Tip 4: Acknowledge that people have feelings

If you’re dreading a particular conversation, it’s because there are difficult emotions to deal with. That knot in your stomach? Fear. The potential outburst from your colleague? Anger. The withdrawal into silence? Disappointment.

Listen for what’s really going on beneath the surface, and find a way to acknowledge it. For example, you might say: “I imagine you might be feeling disappointed with what I’ve said. Is that right?” Knowing how to move through the emotional undertones with some carefully chosen words can keep a conversation on track. Helping others to maintain their dignity, whilst being both humane and honest, is crucial for effective communication.

Tip 5: Don’t blame or shame

Keep the purpose clearly in mind. Feedback is not about highlighting the other person’s shortcomings or making them feel incompetent, inadequate or diminished. You are there to help the other person to expand their thinking, enable their growth and realise more of their potential. Remember that throughout.

Also think about how you can minimise any sense of threat for the other person. Making it a two-way conversation early on does this. Perhaps ask them how they’re feeling, or what they’d like from the conversation, to help to build psychological safety.

Tip 6: Make it actionable

Remember that you are both responsible for making it a productive exchange. Towards the end of the conversation, explore how the messages you’ve given have landed with the other person by asking:

–       What have you learnt from our conversation?

–       What are you taking away?

–       How might you apply what we’ve been discussing?

Identifying some key insights and practical steps helps the conversation to end on an upbeat note and keeps the momentum for change going. The positive impact of your feedback might not be experienced immediately so keeping the door open to further dialogue is also a good way to close.

This article was originally published in Ethical Corporation.
It forms Week 4 in the Blueprint 10 Steps to Fulfilment at Work.