5 Simple Ways for Supervisors to Avoid Destructive Feedback

An HR consultant giving his team constructive feedback.
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One of the most challenging parts of supervision is giving feedback that is helpful, rather than harmful, to the people we support.

In a previous article, we walked through how to determine what to do when someone is having an issue with performance or behavior.  But what if you’ve decided to discuss the subject and don’t know how to do it in an effective way?

Let’s explore what effective feedback is and how to ensure you’re delivering your message in a useful and productive way.

Effective Feedback

Giving feedback effectively means communicating in a way that will bring about the desired result.  In other words, there will be a positive change as a result of the conversation, and the working relationship will be strengthened.

I like to think about feedback coming in one of two methods: constructive or destructive.  Constructive feedback is uplifting and motivational; destructive feedback tears down and demotivates.

Since these two are opposite ends of the same stick, let’s look at the elements that will determine which end you’re on.

1. Your Intention

Take time before the conversation to get clear on your motivation.  Why do you want to have this discussion?

Are you calling the meeting to tell the person your thoughts just to make them feel bad as punishment, or is it to help them improve in the future?

Do you care about this person and respect him/her as a human with strengths and weaknesses, or do you wish they weren’t part of your team?

Your answers to these questions will come across in the words you choose and your non-verbal communication such as your tone of voice.

Make sure your intentions are positive before you begin the discussion to ensure it is constructive.

2. Underlying Emotions

If you find yourself wanting the person to feel bad and wishing they would leave the team, check your emotions.  If you’re feeling irritated and angry, things may be too raw.

Wait until you cool down, and then think about your intentions again.  Sometimes you have to get into the right emotional state of mind before you can see what the person has to add to the team.

Even when you’re starting a conversation in a calm, positive state of mind, if the person reacts defensively, it can trigger those initial negative emotions all over again.

Stay on the emotional high road.  If you raise your voice or take on an irritated tone, the conversation is doomed to be destructive.

Spend some time thinking through how you’ll respond if the person reacts emotionally to the feedback.  Focus on steadying your breathing, and acknowledging their emotions will go a long way toward keeping both of you calm and the conversation productive.

3. What’s the Focus?

Make sure the person understands that they are not inherently flawed because they made a mistake or did something different than what needed to be done.  It’s that feeling that can make feedback destructive.

Choose words that make it clear you’re talking not about the person, but their actions and results.  When you do this, the feedback will be easier to absorb, and the person will tend to be less defensive.

Also, remember that the vast majority of performance issues can be attributed to systems or processes.

When you enter the conversation with that perspective, the other person will understand that you are looking for a solution to a problem versus a person to put on the chopping block.

4. Two or One-Way

Lectures are destructive; conversations are constructive.  Clearly explain the situation and then be open to listening to the other person’s version of what happened or explanation of why it happened.

Often, less equals more.  So, speak less and listen more.  When you do speak, ask questions rather than making statements.  These two aspects create an open dialogue, which is a key trait of constructive feedback.

5. Privacy

Discuss the issues in private to ensure the person feels secure and comfortable.  When an individual is approached in front of others, the feedback they are receiving becomes embarrassing and destructive.

It may seem that this one would go without saying, but more often than not, these conversations happen within earshot of others.  Supervisors don’t want to make a “big deal” about the issue by asking to speak with the person privately.

But getting feedback, no matter how minor, in front of other people is definitely a “big deal.”  Don’t make a person hear your feedback this way… ever.

Final Thought

Once you’ve thought through the five points above, consider one last thing.  Make sure your words land softly and clearly.

The goal of constructive feedback is not to water down the feedback to the point where the person cannot understand that they are accountable for their performance.  If you do that, the feedback is no longer effective.

Remember that you can be clear and still be kind!

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