Feedback on performance matters. It not only maintains quality, refines and hones performance, but it can also improve morale and trust, and build relationships. It can stop minor problems from escalating into major capability issues. It’s something that every people manager or team leader should be doing as standard, and yet it’s so hard to get right.

For some people, giving good feedback is easy. They have no problem telling their team what a fantastic job they have done. They may do this regularly throughout the course of a project, or just at official times during appraisals or probation reviews. Some managers may simply overlook to give feedback at all, particularly where they assume the team member knows how well they are doing. The not-news flash is that people don’t telepathically know they’re doing well or badly. They might assume that any problems would be flagged, but is the assumption that all feedback will be bad, really what you want?

As a manager you have a duty to develop your team members, and this can only be achieved by recognising both their talents and deficiencies. Every single person has areas of weakness and to pretend that they don’t is to do them an injustice. The key to being a good manager is to enable your team members to work towards their strengths, recognise and embrace flaws, and where possible minimise the latter. A feedback exercise which focuses only on the good is merely an exercise in platitude. An exercise which is entirely bad is either a sign of a very poor manager, someone who is totally wrong for their job or, most likely, both.

Delivering negative feedback can be a tricky process so how do you give negative feedback, or (as the much hackneyed phrase would have it) “constructive” feedback?

There are no hard and fast rules, as it very much depends a number of variables: your own management style, the person receiving the feedback, the relationship you have with them and the nature of the feedback, to name just a few. As with most things in life, a common sense approach goes a long way, as does putting yourself into the shoes of the person receiving feedback. Here are a few basic ground rules:

  • Make it timely (this goes for all feedback, not just negative). Telling someone about something they did wrong three weeks ago will just lead to questions of “why didn’t you tell me sooner?”
  • Get information in advance and, if possible, corroborate it. If you can get factual information, do so. If the feedback is subjective, get more than one opinion, but do so tactfully and with respect; it’s always worth giving people the benefit of the doubt where possible.
  • Don’t be overly diplomatic. It’s good to want to be kind, but don’t spare your team member’s feelings at the expense of not solving the problem. Neutral and factual is a better approach which will leave no room for confusion or misunderstanding. At all costs avoid getting angry or frustrated. If you feel yourself getting annoyed, postpone and continue at another time.
  • Listen to your team member’s side of things. They may view things differently, have an explanation or reason for their behaviour or action. Above all else, be fair.
  • Explain why the issue is a problem. Try to get your team member to see things from a different perspective. If they can view their behaviour or performance from another angle, it should help them buy into fixing it. This approach can also help lessen tension and clear up misunderstandings.
  • Set a plan for resolving the issue. Clear, unequivocal objectives are good. Where possible make these SMART. Be wary of giving your report all the solutions or setting the objectives for them. Effective objectives are ones which you reach together. You may have a clear idea of how the problem can be resolved, but if you simply tell your report, there’s less onus on them to meet the objective. By thinking about the problem, and how to solve it, they are buying into the process of resolution. Of course you may need to steer them a little, but be a guide, not a captor. Remember to check back in at regular intervals to see how they’re doing with the objectives.
  • Sometimes it will be easy to give feedback, and sometimes it won’t. Humans aren’t predictable machines, but if you treat people with respect, fairness, integrity and total honesty, you’ll be armed with the best management tools available. Maybe avoid the phrase “Your code sucks” though – probably better phrased as “Your code isn’t very good, and I’d like us to think about how you could do better”.