“He has a right to criticize, who has a heart to help.” – Abraham Lincoln
Very few of us actually enjoy telling someone the work they’re doing isn’t up to par. But giving constructive feedback at the right time is crucial – to your individual growth, your colleagues’ development, and your company’s success.
Adam Grant, a highly respected organizational psychologist, puts it best: “If you look at the data, one of the biggest drivers of success… is your ability to seek and use negative feedback…because that really determines how close to your potential you become.”
Why is feedback so painful? A study by Paul Green of Harvard Business School and Brad Staats of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found that people tend to move away from colleagues who they feel give negative feedback. Instead of listening, people simply stop interacting with those who criticize their work. It’s all about avoiding hurt feelings. The study also showed that people strengthen bonds with co-workers who only see their positive qualities. When people get negative feedback from colleagues that they must continue to work with, employees react by seeking out new, more supportive, co-workers.
The big problem is that many people think that to become successful you have to stay optimistic at all times. But positive thinking can actually hold us back. Studies have concluded that when people admit their negative emotions toward their relationships or chronic illnesses, it helps them adjust their behavior and respond more appropriately.
In the working world, a watered down type of positive thinking is a very popular tool in business management. But even though earlier studies claimed that optimism and positive thinking led to a happy life, these have been shot down by more recent research.
How to give feedback without the hurt feelings:
Giving honest, tough feedback is hard to do. But it’s also one of the keys to a successful organization. For feedback to work you need to make it continuous, and apply it to everyone in your company, from the newest intern to the CEO. Only if you have a feedback loop that puts peers at ease will you begin to see dramatic changes in how your company performs.
Focus on the problem, not the person: Avoid saying things like: “Your PowerPoint presentation put me to sleep.” Instead, focus on the situation, not your opinion about it. This shows you’re all about fixing the problem, not humiliating a colleague.
A bit of praise goes a long way: We all get nervous when a manager wants to have a few words in private with us. “What did I do wrong?” is the first thought that can pop into our minds. A great way to reassure a team member is to include some positives among the negatives. This will show that you’re aware of an employee’s many valuable contributions, not just the parts of the job that need attention.
Timing is everything: If you want a team member to take your feedback in the spirit it’s intended, pick your moment carefully. Constructive criticism that’s given either in front of a lot of people or right during an especially stressful period will more than likely be rejected. It’s best to find a few minutes when you and your colleague can sit and talk in peace and quiet.
Feel their pain: Using ‘you’ or ‘you’re’ too often during a performance appraisal immediately puts people on the defensive. Instead, try a personal story, or one about someone famous who went through something similar. When people don’t feel under attack, they’re more likely to take your critique seriously.
Develop a plan, together: To prove that you’re genuinely interested in a someone’s success, offer specific ideas about how to improve performance. Once you’ve laid out the problem, you and your colleague can develop a concrete action plan together.
Want to boost performance? Make feedback easy to give and receive
Giving feedback more often is only the beginning. To raise performance levels and deliver better results, HR needs to minimize the stress that people feel when giving and receiving feedback. If you make it clear that your goal to help people do their best and your company succeed, you’ll put people at ease. And this is where valuable feedback begins.