Feedback is critical to individual growth, both professional and personal. But people take and give feedback in different ways. Not everyone is comfortable having potentially difficult conversations, and some may find it challenging to give others suggestions for improvement in a way that can be clearly understood while not being condescending or destroying confidence. But in the workplace, the focus has to be on optimising performance and supporting development, which constructive feedback helps to achieve.
The importance of constructive feedback in the workplace
Feedback is central for people to acknowledge where they stand in their mutual relationships and with the quality of their work. Without feedback, humans, being creatures of habit, will move forward in the same way, doing the same things, along the same trajectory without realising their shortcomings. Feedback provides others with a platform where they can share their suggestions, enabling employees to address any concerns and improve accordingly.
Constructive feedback is a way of communicating with an employee that focuses on their achievements and strengths. It provides them with an opportunity to gain an insight into their professional and personal behaviours and actions.
Types of feedback
Feedback can be classified in several ways:
- Positive vs negative: positive feedback affirms that the employee is performing as expected. By way of contrast, negative feedback informs an individual that their actions need to be corrected.
- Formal vs informal: formal feedback is generally given in a set format and there tends to be much more involved in the process, such as annual reviews with exchanges of appraisal forms. Informal feedback, on the other hand, is usually a brief affair and is generally given following an action or event.
- Annual vs monthly: it is up to each organisation to decide what works best for them, but feedback can be scheduled at different intervals. Annual, bi-annual, and monthly reviews are all commonplace within organisations. More frequent feedback such as weekly, daily, or even throughout the day, may be needed, such as when a new employee is being trained.
- Verbal vs written: feedback does not necessarily have to be written, it may be given verbally or via a combination of both methods. Generally speaking, written feedback is considered to be a more formal approach.
- Manager vs peer: the sort of feedback given rather depends on the relationships of the individuals involved. For example, a manager and a colleague are likely to have differing perspectives in their review of an employee.
Workplace feedback had typically been reserved for the annual performance appraisal discussion. This has shifted to more regular and in some cases real-time feedback procedures, largely arising from the expectations of millennial workers. Regular, constructive feedback is shown to result in increased performance, at individual, team and organisational levels.
With feedback becoming a frequent feature of everyday workplace interactions, it’s important that managers, supervisors and team members are confident and comfortable in sharing their thoughts positively and in a way that adds value.
How to give constructive feedback
Using a feedback model is a good way to structure and prepare for the feedback that you want to give the employee. There are several methods an organisation might use, but the BISA feedback model is an excellent way to engage in constructive dialogue with an employee or colleague.
The BISA feedback structure stands for the following: Behaviour, Impact, Silence, and Alternatives, and can be used as follows:
- Behaviour: Identify specific behaviours that have been observed, relying on indisputable factual information.
- Impact: Communicate the impact the behaviour has had on the team or organisation.
Silence: Give the person enough time to contemplate the information that has been given and allow them time to respond.
- Alternatives: Ask the employee if they have any ideas about what they could have done more effectively. The employer should be ready to add their own suggestions and observations.
Example of using the BISA method
Picture the scenario, your employee is continually late for work and it is beginning to become an issue. Another employee has informed you that they have been stepping in and covering the team member’s work until they arrive, which is having an adverse effect on their own duties for the rest of the day.
You should arrange a meeting for later in the day where you can address the problem in private, preparing for the meeting in advance using the BISA method as follows:
Behaviour: “It’s been brought to my attention there have been several occasions recently where you’ve been late for work.” You should have the details of the instances of lateness to hand, including dates, days, time arrived, etc.
Impact: “I feel disappointed because it’s very important we are all on time for work. Even if you are just ten minutes late, it impacts the entire team. Is there any reason you have been so late, recently?”
Silence: give the employee time to consider and respond.
Alternatives: ask the employee what you can do to help to ensure they arrive on time. Give them options such as changing their hours for a short while, for example. You should be ready to give the employee constructive suggestions.
Using the BISA method to give positive feedback
Giving constructive feedback can be difficult, and it is possible to get it wrong. Unspecific and vague observations of an employee’s performance may be seen as insincere. Merely saying something along the lines of, “well done, you’re doing a great job” may well be interpreted by an employee as a vague and meaningless platitude.
The BISA method, when applied to the above scenario, may go something like this:
Behaviour: “I noticed that you did an amazing job on that proposal because you handled it all yourself, asked questions, paid good attention to detail, and delivered it on time.”
Impact: “As a result, we have an extremely happy client, and the team knows they can rely on you to lead on future proposals.”
As you can see, the feedback is both constructive and specific to the task performed. It is also timely. Constructive feedback generally has an expiration date, waiting for mid-year or annual appraisals are likely to be too late to have any operational effect.
Tips for offering constructive feedback
Unfortunately, not all constructive feedback is actually constructive. Delivering your feedback the wrong way can make the recipient feel attacked personally, which causes defensiveness, hurt feelings, and demotivation. So, how do you communicate effective constructive feedback?
Focus on how to change
If it is framed appropriately, criticism can be constructive. Focus on the change that needs to happen without resorting to accusatory comments or using a derogatory tone. Include the benefit to the person needing to change and focus on how they can actively deliver that change.
Ground your constructive feedback in behaviour
Criticism that is constructive tends to describe the behaviours you want changed. Rather than saying they are disrespectful, for example, reference how they roll their eyes and sigh. Instead of saying you want the person to be more of a team player, explain the specific behaviour you expect within the team.
Give your intention some consideration
Why do you feel the need to share the criticism? If you are really trying to help someone improve their performance, you should approach by first asking yourself how you would want such information communicated to you. By sticking to the facts, you avoid an emotional confrontation, creating the space for a mutual discussion rather than a directive.
Point out opportunities, not faults
Try not to point out faults, but opportunities for personal growth instead. Start by telling them why you are the person giving the feedback, and how you are willing to help them learn from it.
Have a private conversation
The old adage, praise in public, criticise in private applies here. This is a general rule, which has few exceptions. If the recipient of the feedback feels embarrassed or humiliated, then the criticism is likely to be of little value. Constructive criticism is given one-to-one, and when delivered in the correct tone and with the right motive, it will naturally contribute value.
Prepare the employee for feedback
Feedback should be given with the outcome in mind. Frame the conversation with something along the lines of “I need to tell you something that may be hard for you to hear.”
Use emotional intelligence
Consider your own emotional state before delivering feedback. Are you angry or stressed? If so, you could be initiating a scene that could potentially backfire. Consider how the criticism you need to deliver impacts you personally, how the feedback will impact the recipient as well as the team’s productivity. It is good practice to manage your emotional state prior to giving feedback if you are to obtain the desired outcome.
Constructive feedback is intended to build and strengthen an individual, not tear them down. By focusing on the behaviour and the issue, it will help keep your conversation on the matter at hand. Explain the impact of the employee’s behaviour on the business and come from a place of collaboration and support.
Start with what is working
Real and effective feedback is actually about telling the truth without apportioning blame or judgment. Truth should always have two parts — something is working, and something could be better. Start with what is working, then move on towards the improvement side of things.
Get to the point
A big misconception is that criticism should be sandwiched between a positive opening and conclusion. There are times when an employer must get to the point at the outset, then offer guidance on how any flaws or issues can be overcome.
Focus on behaviour that can be changed
Giving feedback along the lines of “you’re not prepared” can be seen as broad-based claims, and can be interpreted as an evaluation of character, which tends to be harmful. Constructive feedback focuses on things that can be changed and addresses how to change them.
Maintain collaborative communication
If an employee floats an idea and you disagree with it, do not automatically dismiss it out of hand, despite it being your first instinct. Quick, harsh responses could have the effect of shutting down channels of communication, and also cause employees to be less likely to share ideas in the future. Build a culture of collaboration which encourages constructive feedback, as opposed to on raising immediate objections.
Discuss behaviour, impact, and action
Constructive feedback describes the impact of a particular behaviour, rather than focussing on perceived intent or personality.
Use criticism well
Criticism is merely information. It is the way that it is delivered which can be harmful. Assessing criticism objectively and without emotion allows the discovery of useful information. The rest can be shrugged off.
Show respect and stay objective
Constructive feedback starts with respect for the recipient’s dignity. Words should be chosen carefully so that they do not put the recipient on the defensive. Dignity can be maintained by giving choices where possible.
What if the feedback does not work?
There are times when providing an employee with feedback is not sufficient to change their negative behaviours or improve their performance to the level you require. In such cases, you may need to start thinking about a more formal procedure in line with your organisation’s capability, performance or disciplinary policies.
DavidsonMorris’ specialist HR consultants provide expert guidance to employers on all aspects of workforce management and engagement, including training and advice on performance management and feedback techniques. Working closely with our employment law colleagues, we offer employers holistic guidance to protect the best interests of your organisation. For help and support, contact us.
Constructive feedback FAQs
What is constructive feedback in the workplace?
Constructive feedback comes with positive intensions and appropriately helps identify solutions to areas of weakness an employee may have. It also reinforces positive behaviour.
What is a good example of constructive criticism?
If you have an employee who makes mistakes when rushing to meet a deadline, highlight their strengths to boost their confidence before communicating your concerns.
How do you write constructive feedback?
Constructive feedback is a healthy blend of praise for achievement and suggestions for improvement. It should be information specific, issue focussed, and based on observations.
How do I handle constructive criticism?
Try not to take it personally and understand the person offering the feedback does not intend to make you feel bad about yourself. Keep an open mind and engage in the process.
Last updated: 3 June 2023