How to give constructive feedback

Learn how to give feedback constructively to maximize development and growth.

Why is constructive feedback so important?

Giving feedback is an essential process in absolutely any workplace, but there’s a right and wrong way to go about it. Constructive feedback is the right way; it establishes actionable solutions and ultimately leads to career development.

Meaningful feedback in general is hugely necessary in the workplace to help staff recognize and understand their individual performance, expectations, strengths, and weaknesses. But you’ll only reap the rewards of giving employee feedback if you do it constructively.

Negative feedback is not intrinsically a bad thing. In fact, it’s necessary. A Harvard Business Review study found that 57% of employees would rather receive corrective feedback than solely positive affirmations. Positive reinforcement keeps your team motivated and confident and makes sure their value is recognized, while negative feedback encourages continuous development and growth.

You can’t expect someone to improve on their weaknesses if they aren’t even aware that those weaknesses exist. Any business should aim for constant improvement, and that can only be achieved with a solid feedback system to keep everyone aware of what needs to be worked on.

However, when feedback isn’t given constructively, you could reinforce negative or insecure thoughts and attitudes between you and your team, which of course reflects negatively on the work. Strictly negative feedback doesn’t facilitate growth or lead to a positive outcome in any way, so constructive feedback is always the preferred method.

How to give feedback constructively

When it comes time to give constructive feedback, there are a few specific steps and tips you should always consider before you do so. You don’t want to do things the wrong way and leave your team member feeling inadequate or unappreciated. Remember, the goal is to address the negative issues with clarity while ultimately working towards positive improvement.

Be timely and prepared

Feedback should always be given in a timely manner. You should confront issues as they arise, and make sure not to rush into things or go in unprepared.

Before you bring up an issue with someone, first make sure you fully understand it yourself. Avoid rushing into feedback if you’re a bit heated about an issue; constructive feedback should never be approached with even a hint of aggression, and if you haven’t taken a step back to look at the issue objectively, you won’t be able to offer the most productive conversation.

Before you approach anyone, gather your thoughts, make sure you’re certain of the precise issue, and ensure that you’ve not blown things out of proportion in the heat of the moment. Be sure that you’re prepared to fully explain the problem and how it affects the business.

Face-to-face is ideal

When giving corrective feedback you want to make sure nothing is misunderstood and your tone is clear, so if possible, do it in person. This is especially true for overall performance-driven feedback (like a performance review) as opposed to feedback on a specific piece of work (like an article review), which we’ll discuss below.

Of course, you won’t always be able to do it in person, but face-to-face communication even by Zoom call is always better than by email or chat when it comes to negative performance feedback. Providing this type of feedback via text can lead to misinterpretations, and will come off as less a discussion and more an assertion.

Facial expression, body language, and tone of voice are all key to ensuring your feedback is conveyed in a constructive, respectful manner.

Keep it informal

Talk to your employee just like you would in any other conversation. You don’t need to be extra serious just because you’re giving feedback. On the other hand, you don’t need to become suddenly casual if you usually have a more formal rapport with your team.

Keeping feedback friendly while still being assertive avoids harboring insecurities and makes it clear that you’ve got everyone’s best interests at heart.

Don’t be threatening and don’t bring anger into the conversation. Explain with clarity how the issue at hand could negatively impact the business, the team, and the individual, but approach it with empathy.

Be specific and direct

Your feedback should always be specific. There should be a particular issue you’re addressing, with a clear goal on the other end of it. Go through every step of the process and work together to figure out what went wrong. In order to really target the issue at hand, you need to be as precise as you can.

Simply telling an employee “you need to do better” isn’t going to help. You need to be clear about the areas that need improvement so they can understand what exactly they need to work on.

You might feel it’s necessary to balance each negative with a positive, but that can actually be counteractive. Your feedback should always be honest, relevant, and should facilitate continued improvement and growth, and you won’t feel the need to seek out positives for the sake of diplomacy if you approach feedback constructively.

Establish a dialogue

Communication skills across the board are key in any business, and they’re especially important when it comes to giving constructive criticism.

Constructive feedback isn’t a one-sided conversation. Yes, you’re the one providing the feedback, but it’s absolutely essential that you give your teammate an opportunity to explain their process. Explaining how an issue occurred shouldn’t be viewed as a shallow excuse or defensiveness.

Perhaps the issue you’re raising is a mere misunderstanding, but you need to be able to establish a dialogue so that you can identify exactly where things went wrong.

If you’re just talking at someone, you can’t be sure that they really understand the problem and that they’ve really digested the specific problems that must be overcome. It’s important you understand their perspective so you know how to approach a solution.

After you’ve explained the issue, ask them to summarize the discussion to ensure the message has been conveyed.

Don’t make it personal

If the feedback you need to give is less about a specific piece of work and more to do with someone’s behavior or attitude, then you need to be careful about how you address it. You don’t want feedback to come off as an attack against someone’s personality.

Make sure that your feedback isn’t driven by emotion, and is instead focused on how and why these behavioral issues can affect the collective goals of the business. It’s not “you’re not good,” but rather, “this work isn’t meeting the standard it needs to because…”

Remember that the work is the subject of the conversation—not the employee. For instance, if you’re offering feedback on a piece of video content that wasn’t edited to an acceptable standard, you should frame your feedback around the mistakes in the content and its quality, as opposed to focusing on the skills or ability of the employee.

Work towards a solution

Effective feedback doesn’t end once you’ve outlined issues. This should always be followed up with a discussion about how they can be avoided in the future. Establish actionable goals with your team member and offer specific suggestions, but allow them to strategize solutions too, rather than simply telling them what to do.

Giving constructive feedback on a piece of work

Feedback is expected for almost any piece of work, but it doesn’t always need to be a one-on-one conversation. When it comes to something like offering feedback on a specific piece of work, like reviewing a written document, you’ll find it’s more productive to use tools and services that enable ongoing, real-time annotations and notes.

With Dropbox, you can add annotations directly to any file, doing away with messy email threads, endless follow-up calls and team meetings, and constant downloads of updated file versions. You’ll have the flexibility to create a system that works for you and your team—it could be as simple as using emojis to quickly offer feedback in a casual, fun way.

This allows collaborative work to develop fluidly without having to dedicate extra time to go over notes. Add comments to a work file and choose which members of the team can access and contribute to the feedback loop, and use version history to go back to the very first draft and track the changes implemented against the feedback provided.

Never forget praise

While we’ve largely discussed how to give feedback that leans more towards the negative, and noted that you don’t need to strictly balance every minus with a plus—it is important to remember that positive feedback is still needed for employee morale. Always remind your team that their hard work doesn’t go unnoticed, it’s much easier to stay motivated when you know you’re already on a roll.