3 Tips Executives Can Use to Master the Art of Constructive Feedback

Sarah Clark

So often, I see seasoned business leaders who think they’ve learned all that they can, but I have to respectfully disagree.

One area in particular that I’ve found that executives can always grow in is employee-employer dialogue — particularly when it comes to the “tough” conversations.

Whether you’re tasked with telling an employee he’s underperforming or settling interoffice drama, these conversations are, by nature, uncomfortable. Let’s face it: No one likes conflict. Still, you can’t brush issues under the rug, hoping things will resolve themselves. In fact, avoiding the situation will only add fuel to the fire, eventually impacting your office environment and squashing productivity.

So how do you facilitate tough conversations and bust the feedback loop wide open?

The Art of Constructive Conversations

Over my career, I’ve had my fair share of difficult conversations with employees. Once, I worked with a director attempting to engage an employee and get him back on track. The employee was often more interested in positioning himself for a promotion than listening to constructive criticism. I knew it was time to provide specific, honest feedback.

After sitting the employee down, I told him directly that this conversation was about him keeping his current job, not about getting a promotion. I told him he had to start performing his current tasks well before we could begin to entertain the idea of expanding his responsibilities.

When the employee left, I’ll never forget what my director said to me: “Sarah, that was the nicest way of almost firing someone I’ve ever heard in my life.” I was being honest, transparent, and direct. And in doing so, the employee finally understood. After that, we saw some improvement in his performance.

Here are my top three tips for facilitating difficult conversations:

  1. Be transparent with employees.This one is huge for Millennials. They want honest, transparent feedback and to be told what they’ve done wrong so they can fix it. They want to be a part of the process and involved wherever possible. They want to know the business’s goals and objectives — and how they’re contributing to them. They want information — and, honestly, they deserve it. What they don’t want, though, is to be ambushed.

    There’s a time and place for feedback. Don’t confront your employee with a performance problem in the hallway. Rather, schedule time for a conversation, and set the expectation ahead of time that you’ll be discussing performance. This way, the employee can prepare and, thus, will more likely be receptive to it. Immediate feedback should only be given if you witness or hear about inappropriate or egregious behavior. Be ready to share specific examples.

    When honest feedback is given in a helpful manner, employee engagement has a direct correlation. According to a 2013 study of more than 22,000 leaders, leaders who ranked in the top 10th percentile for honest feedback were awarded an engagement score of 77 percent by their subordinates. But that engagement score dropped to 25 percent for employers who ranked in the bottom 10th percentile for their ability to be honest while providing feedback.

  2. Know your people.

    Executives need to know their employees and understand how to present information in a digestible manner. Gone are the days of a top-down leadership mentality, especially when it comes to Millennial employees. Members of this generation are much more quick to jump ship if they don’t believe in the ideals of a company or feel undervalued. That said, avoid vague criticism and convoluted strategies at all costs.Prior to giving feedback, make sure you’re being fair and consistent. Don’t rely on your own assumptions. Consider the employee’s past performance and efforts as part of the evaluation. Before the meeting begins, take a deep breath and release any prior baggage. Evaluate what you plan to say and how the employee may receive it. During the meeting, remain polite, respectful, sincere, and concrete.
  3. Ask for a self-assessment.Before sitting down with your employees for a review, invite them to do a self-assessment. Ask them to outline their accomplishments since the last review and any specific projects they’ve completed, as well as where they still need to grow.

    When you meet with employees face to face, invite them to articulate the assessment — sharing their thoughts and accomplishments, as well as what they’ve learned. Acknowledge their efforts. As executives, it’s important to recognize employees’ strengths to foster engagement. An IBM survey found that employees who receive recognition have an engagement level nearly three times higher than those who do not. This recognition makes the employee far less likely to disengage or quit.

You, too, should do a self-assessment before the review. It’s important to acknowledge where you’re doing well, as well as where you could be giving your employees more support. During the meeting, ask the employee to honestly discuss his or her experience with the company. It may be hard to hear the feedback sometimes, but this information will be crucial for future dialogue.

As company leaders, we’re never done refining our communication skills, particularly where our employees are concerned. It’s our job to foster a productive work environment, and the best way we can do that is through healthy dialogue.

Sarah Clark

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Sarah Clark is the president of Mitchell, an award-winning public relations firm that creates real conversations between people, businesses, and brands through strategic insights, customized conversations, and consumer engagement. The agency is headquartered in Fayetteville, Ark., with offices in Chicago and New York City. Mitchell is part of Dentsu Aegis Network, which is made up of nine global network brands and supported by its specialist/multimarket brands. Dentsu Aegis Network is Innovating the Way Brands Are Built for its clients through its best-in-class expertise and capabilities in media, digital, and creative communications services. Offering a distinctive and innovative range of products and services, Dentsu Aegis Network is headquartered in London and operates in 145 countries worldwide with over 30,000 dedicated specialists.

Clark is one of the top strategic communications professionals in the country, with more than 25 years of experience in corporate communications and an exceptional track record in protecting corporate reputations and redefining perceptions in key areas of business.
Sarah Clark