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Giving Constructive Feedback Effectively

By Mark Shaw, Senior Vice President Human Resources, Kateeva

Elements of Constructive Feedback

Over the last several years, we have experienced have experienced exponential growth in Silicon Valley.  Rapid growth was possible because of the technological leadership demonstrated by so many companies.  These companies count on their leadership to attract the best and the brightest to achieve phenomenal breakthroughs.  But what about people leadership?  How successful are the companies we work for at driving a similar focus on leading people?   My experience is that the best companies consciously focus on developing their leadership brand.  

In this essay, I focus on one of the elements of creating the kind of culture where employees thrive.

Principles for Giving Constructive Feedback Effectively

My general observations about feedback is the following:  Employees want it and they don’t get enough. While employees appreciate the acknowledgements from their managers about jobs well done, I have received a consistent message over the years that employees want more than acknowledgements.  They want to grow and learn on the job.  As managers, you have a role to play in employee growth and development by providing regular coaching and constructive feedback.  The key word is constructive.  How do you give feedback in a way that helps employees learn from mistakes, improves performance, and empowers them to take more responsibility for their ongoing growth and development?

Let’s jump right into the topic and consider the following exchange between Abe (the manager for the group) and one of his direct reports, Betty.

Abe:             You are late on getting me panel data. Because of your lack of follow-through, I can’t meet my commitment to the customer

Betty:         Look, I was working on other projects you gave me, just yesterday.  Also, Clare was late with her analysis.  Besides, no one could have been expected to get that panel data by yesterday. 

Abe:             You should have told me that before today.  Now I have the customer on my back because of your lack of ownership and follow through.

Betty:         I am sorry, but I am working 14 hours a day and it seems like with you everything is urgent without notice.  Why don’t I have any help on this?  It’s not fair. 

Abe:             Look, all I want is the Panel data.  I want that today, no excuses.

What do you notice about the conversation?  Blaming?  Defending? Accusing? Complaining?  There is also no resolution about getting the panel data for the customer.  There are no assurances that this won’t be repeated.   We have an unproductive conversation that damages the relationship between Abe and Betty and negatively affects productivity.   If you were Abe, how would you shift the meeting with Betty from a destructive conflict to constructive conversation?

Elements of Constructive Feedback

When is it appropriate to provide constructive feedback?  When you see opportunities to improve upon a good performance and/or, when you see parts of an employee’s performance falls below expectations.

What should be our goal when giving constructive feedback?    Our goals is to give feedback skillfully.  By skillfully I mean managers should:

1) Assume good intentions on the part of employees,

2) Seek to understand their point of view first,

3) Focus on the relevant data, idea, or deliverable rather than on the person, and

4) Emphasize useful/actionable feedback that looks forward. 

How do you know when you have succeeded?  You know when you see the impact on employees.  Below I distinguish desired impact with unintended impact.  When managers skillfully give feedback, they are more likely to achieve the desired impact on their employees.

Desired Impact Unintended Impact
Employees hear the feedback Employees defend their performance
Employees build on what you have to say Employees find reasons why it can’t be done
Employees take ownership over their improvement Employees wait for you to direct them

What can managers do to get to the desired impact?  When managers I work with ask me for advice on providing constructive feedback, one of the books I recommend reading: Difficult Conversations.  How to Discuss What Matters Most, by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton and Shelia Heen.  In this essay, I draw on some of their work and my experience over the years as a coach for managers to illustrate some of the approaches that managers may find helpful when providing the sometimes-tough feedback when performance falls below expectations. 

Seek to Understand

“People almost never change without first being understood.”  Difficult Conversations (p. 29)

“Instead of asking yourself, ‘I wonder how they think that?’ ask yourself, ‘I wonder what information they have that I don’t?’”  Difficult Conversations (p. 37)

A critical mindset for managing a difficult conversation is to for the manager to shift from certainty to curiosity.   You demonstrate curiosity when you start by trying to understand the other’s perspective.   No one wants to fail.  No one begins their day thinking they want to avoid delivering something that is critical to the customer.  One way to begin shifting a conversation from blaming and defending to constructive feedback is to work to understand the employee’s perspective.  How do you get an employee’s point of view?  You start by asking questions!

Clarifying questions

  • “Help me understand why you want to change the spec on the screw size for the plate?”
  • What’s the impact of your suggestion on the timeline?”
  • “I am not sure I see how your changes improves the throughput of the product?”

Clarifying questions typically depend on using “what” “why” and “how.”  Notice how the manager changes the tone of the encounter by asking these questions.  Questions give the employee a chance to engage in a conversation that shifts from defensiveness or resistance to one of engagement.  The next important step of asking a question is to demonstrate that you understand the answer.  So the next critical skill to understand in confirming your understanding.

Managers confirm their understanding by paraphrasing and checking back for understanding.  Let me offer some examples using possible answers to the questions posed earlier:

Confirming Your Understanding:

  • “I understand now, you want change the spec for the screw because the one you suggested is flush with the inside of the plate.  You believe the spec screws creates a safety risk.  Did I get that right?” 
  • “Ok, you don’t think that the timeline gets impacted at all by the changes you are making.  Is that right?  I understand and I still don’t agree.  Did you consider vendor ability to deliver the new parts?”
  • “I see, you think that the throughput improves because the design changes improves the productivity of the ink packs.  Is that what you are saying?   OK, so now I understand why you are working on this approach. It’s a good idea.  However, I still think there are issues that are more important for us to target right now.”

Confirming skills typically mean that the manager uses phrases like “I understand, you think . . .” and “what I hear you saying is . . .”   Confirming your understanding lets the employee see that you not only ask questions but listened to the answer and acknowledged what was heard.  The other point to make about the examples is that in two of the three instances the manager did not agree with employee’s position.  Too many managers believe that acknowledging understanding is the same as agreement.  

Understanding is NOT the same as agreeing 

Too many managers lose the opportunity to acknowledge the thinking and good intentions of an employee’s in order to avoid the appearance of supporting or encouraging ideas or work to which they do not initially agree.   In those situations, managers lose out in potentially two ways.  First, they may learn a better solution and second, they miss an opportunity to teach an employee about why their positions fall short of the enterprise goals set by the manager.

Conversation Example Using Constructive Feedback Principles

Let’s conclude this essay by returning to the conversation between Abe and Betty and this time I will have Abe use the clarifying and confirming skills. 

Abe:             Betty, What happened with the Panel data?  I thought you were going to get that to me last night. 

Betty:         I know, but I also thought you wanted me to finish the BIDS and P&ID first.  I was here until 9:30 last night finishing those extra projects; I could not get to the Panel data.

Abe:             You spent all that time on BIDs and P&ID.  Wow! Why did that take so long?

Betty:         I thought it would be easy.  But the lab results surprised me.  It was more complex than expected and I did not want to pass along an incomplete analysis             

Abe:             OK, so you ran across problems you did not anticipate and thought you would take the extra time needed to complete that task?

Betty:         That’s right. 

Abe:             Betty, look, I appreciate that you took the extra effort to get me an accurate analysis of the metrology data.  And I like the fact that you are trying solve problems without involving me. However, the Panel data was more important than those other projects. Do you understand why?

Betty:         I know, I am sorry, it’s because this was a customer requirement.

Abe:             Yes.  In the future, it is important that you know what work is prioritized.  You are already too busy to work on things that have less value.  How do we avoid this in the future?

Betty:         I think in this case, I should have checked with you.  Had I done so I would have saved myself a lot of time! 

Abe:             I agree, and thanks for your ownership.  Now, what is your plan for getting the panel data?

OK, perhaps you are thinking that the revised conversation with Abe and Betty is a bit too neat.  Maybe.  However, for illustrating the use of clarifying and confirming allow me show Abe at his best so I can walk you through the specific elements of the conversation and show how the pieces fit. 

Notice that Abe begins with an open-ended question:

“What happened with the Panel data?  I thought you were going to get that to me last night”

As opposed to the earlier accusation,

“You are late

And blame,

“Because of your lack of follow through, I can’t meet my commitment to the customer.” 

Starting your difficult conversations with questions can change the tenor of the whole meeting.    

Notice next how Abe confirms his understanding:

“OK, so you ran across problems you did not anticipate and thought you would take the extra time needed to complete that task?” 

Because of the confirmation, Betty is more likely to finding herself agreeing with Abe instead of arguing with him.  Once an employee begins to show agreement in one phase of the conversation, you have helped set the stage for further agreement. 

Notice that Abe acknowledges the good intent for Betty,

“I appreciate that you took the extra effort to get me an accurate analysis of the metrology data.  And I like the fact that you are trying solve problems without involving me.” 

By acknowledging her good intent Abe makes it clear his feedback is balanced and helps to make the feedback about where her performance fell short more digestible.   

Notice that Abe uses questions to solicit Betty’s opinions about the solution to the problem:

“How do we avoid this in the future?” 

Asking Betty for her ideas about the solution creates more ownership on Betty’s part for the solution that they arrive at.  You should know that you take on a risk when you ask an employee for their idea.  The risk is you have to be willing to consider the idea.  A manager should not be asking for suggestions on solutions if the manager is not open to those ideas.  In the next essay, I will devote the time to considering how managers build on the ideas of others.

I want to end this essay by reminding you that as managers we have the opportunity to shape our leadership brand.  To be a company where our employees can achieve maximum impact, continuously learn, and make a difference.  Your capabilities as a leader a key part of building this brand.  The foundation is feedback.

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