How to Give Constructive Feedback
Once you’ve overcome your shyness, there’s the question of how best to give constructive criticism. Some of the things you’ve heard may not be helpful, like the often-recommended “sandwich” method of placing criticism between two layers of praise. This approach “is not supported by evidence, and research suggests it can actually have a detrimental effect by diluting or blurring the really important advice,” said Naomi Winstone, a cognitive psychologist who studies constructive feedback at the University of Surrey in Britain.
Giving too many comments is another common mistake, which is funny considering we so often make the opposite mistake. “Providing feedback on absolutely every element of performance can be overwhelming,” Dr. Winstone said. “Instead, focusing on the top priorities for improvement, with clear guidance on how to take the next steps, can be the most motivating.”
Research by economist Katherine L. Milkman and others suggests that we’re more likely to change our own behavior when we’re specific about the goals we set for ourselves, and the same may be true when we set goals for others, said Catherine Sanderson, a psychologist at Amherst College.
“A coach who says ‘try harder’ to an underperforming athlete might be less effective than a coach who says, ‘You need to build greater strength, so starting tomorrow you should spend 30 minutes each day lifting weights,” Dr. Sanderson said.
Also try to schedule your comments when people are calm and receptive. “Avoid giving feedback when you or the intended recipient are feeling stressed or emotionally charged,” Dr. Simon suggested. Make it clear that you are commenting on a person’s behavior rather than their character, Dr. Sanderson added. “Don’t make it personal,” she said. “It’s important to separate what the person said or did from who they are.”
What if you want constructive criticism, but no one offers it to you? Research by Hayley Blunden, a doctoral candidate in organizational behavior at Harvard Business School, suggests that asking people for advice, rather than feedback, often yields more useful and actionable information. That’s because the advice is forward-looking, which “can open up people’s thinking,” she said, and get them to focus on what could be, rather than what is. happened in the past. Additionally, giving future-oriented advice seems less critical than giving feedback on past choices, which could help more empathetic people “let their guard down and share more specific information,” he said. she adds.
Next time I’m feeling nervous about giving feedback to my assistant, partner, or friends, here’s what I’ll do: I’ll try to imagine what I would want if I were in their situation, and I will consider the benefits my comments could bring in terms of personal or professional growth. Then I’ll share my thoughts – which I’ll take as advice – briefly and specifically when they seem receptive. And I hope that in the future they will do the same for me.