Giving Constructive Feedback in Tough Conditions

The trick for management in terms of feedback is to ensure that it is, at all times, constructive. As a manager no one should want to crush their employee’s spirits. These conversations are tough enough without the ongoing issues we face at present which are likely to continue, to some degree, for a considerable amount of time – but there will always be a crisis of some sort as the business environment constantly changes.

The need in terms of feedback is to avoid feelings of negativity from the person receiving it. Add to that the increasing need to handle feedback remotely rather than in person can make the conveyance of bad news very difficult and the ability to ‘soften the blow’ very challenging.

The other issue is how the recipient perceives sessions where feedback is given. Negativity bias shapes how people hear feedback. There is a universal tendency for negative events and emotions to affect people more strongly than positive ones. To put it another way we dwell on criticism and brush past praise.

Negativity bias can be a challenge in any feedback conversation, but it’s particularly problematic right now because of the chronic stress many people are experiencing as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. Unsurprisingly research has shown that chronic stress is tied to a stronger negativity bias. Right now, in what has been a trying time for so many people, employees may be even more likely to focus on the negative in your message. For example, if you say, “I need you to redo that report,” they might hear, “Your work is really slipping,” or worse yet, “I’m not sure you belong in this job.” You know that you are trying to help them improve, but they think you’re judging them, and harshly too.

It is much easier in a face-to-face situation and that is the truth. Many managers now find themselves in this position, no longer able to rely on those nonverbal cues when having tough conversations. The stress that’s increasing negativity bias and the circumstances that are keeping the workplace at home are likely to persist for a while longer. It will help managers if they take a few steps to be more strategic about how they deliver constructive feedback. This can help prevent the negativity bias that a digital venue can enhance from distorting how your employees take your feedback. How they take it is all that really matters.

Here are a few tips:

Open up by asking questions. Begin your constructive feedback conversation by asking the other person about their perspective. You might ask, “What did you think of that report?” or even simpler, “How do you feel that went?” You want to learn about their experience and what they think of their work — maybe they’ve never worked so hard on a three-page document. It will be easier to raise your concern if they’ve already voiced it.

What if they say they thought it went well and don’t voice any concerns? You might be dealing with someone who is unaware of their underperformance. If you observed the problem directly, you can say, “I ask because I noticed X,” and if you didn’t observe the problem yourself, try, “I ask because I heard X.” In either case, you’re hoping the employee is willing to brainstorm, with you, ways to handle the situation differently in the future. Be clear that they’re being evaluated on their results, not their effort. Always be objective!

Praise before criticism. Individuals are more receptive to constructive criticism if they’re first told what specifically they did well. Your goal here isn’t a hand-waving, “You do good work.” Instead, make it as concrete as the concern you’re about to raise — for example, “It’s clear you have a mastery of the data.” If there isn’t much you can praise about the work, praise their willingness to keep improving.

Point out your good intentions. Explicitly stating your good intentions – e.g. “I’m in your corner,” or “I know you’re trying to improve your writing and I want to help you get there,” or even, “I want to be able to use this report as a model for the rest of the team.”

Clarify and contrast. After you have raised your concern or suggestion, follow it with, “What I mean is X and what I don’t mean is Y.” For instance, “What I am saying is that I’m concerned you don’t have the time right now. What I am not saying is that you lack the ability. I know this would be easy for you under other circumstances.” You can pre-emptively address any negative spin that the other person might entertain.

Make the other person specify their key takeaways. Save time at the end of the conversation to ask, “So what are your top three takeaways from what we have discussed?” It may feel redundant, but you’ll learn from this if they are taking a negative view. If so, you can reposition the message. Remember too that when you’re giving feedback remotely, it’s far too easy for the other person to end a call more abruptly than they ever would in person. If they urgently need to get off the call, ask them to email you by the end of the day with their three takeaways. It’s better to correct any misunderstandings in the moment, but the same day is better than letting them dwell on things overnight or even over the weekend.

While the ongoing stress brought about by the last couple of years can make your employees take constructive feedback even harder than usual. Taking care to deliver it with clarity and sensitivity will help them focus on the reality of your message, even in a remote environment.

If you are looking for more help in delivering constructive feedback effectively, get in touch with us at or call us on 01162325231 for a free/ no obligation discussion.

The Tinderbox Team