How to give constructive feedback without upsetting someone: Three top tips

Telling people they're wrong is tough, so managers must tread carefully if they want to help people learn from their mistakes.
Written by Mark Samuels, Contributor

Running a successful team isn't straightforward. Not everything will go well all of the time, so what's the best way to tell someone they're doing something wrong?

One thing's certain, as Harvard Business Review suggests, negative feedback rarely leads to improvement. 

Cecilia Feng, assistant professor of accounting at Stony Brook University, says that delivering feedback successfully requires IT leaders to establish strong values and to speak a common language.

"Providing constructive criticism, particularly when it is not actively sought, can be a challenging endeavour in a business setting," she says. "However, successful leaders communicate opportunities for improvement to nudge the organisation in the right direction, to earn the respect of their colleagues and to be viewed as a valuable contributor."

SEE: Digital transformation: A CXO's guide (ZDNet special report) | Download the report as a PDF (TechRepublic)

Feng says the best CIOs focus on the objectives that the business is trying to achieve. So this means that rather than relying on technical jargon, the best IT leaders speak like CEOs and CFOs. They focus on how an alternative approach helps to improve the way the business operates and boosts its bottom line.

CIOs who take this approach develop rapport with their team and the rest of the C-suite. They emphasise how everyone shares a common goal, but that they might differ in their approach. "To avoid being construed as being destructive, as opposed to constructive, business leaders have to demonstrate a high level of interpersonal skills and be trusted by others," she says.

Feng's IT leadership research suggests that successful feedback relies on individuals valuing the opinions and objectives of the CIO. So, how do CIOs use that theory in practice? Three CIOs give their best-practice technique for giving constructive criticism to their colleagues.

1. Create a collective position on each individual

Michael Ibbitson, executive vice president for technology and infrastructure at Dubai Airports, says the key to giving feedback to his staff is getting his leadership team together to create a collective view. His team puts the names of all their direct reports up on a board and talks about each person for 15 minutes. It's a day-long process, twice a year,

"And everybody gives feedback on that person's performance, not necessarily on what they deliver, because what they deliver is technical in nature – but how they deliver; how did they work across the team, inside our department and outside our department, to create the best possible outcome and create the best environment," says Ibbitson.

All feedback about an individual goes into one position that the leadership team agrees. The line manager gives that feedback to the individual, but it comes from the collective. Ibbitson says he's found that process is the most effective way to give feedback.

"When someone is told the leadership group believes that this is the way to help you improve your performance, it's really amazing for the individual. They know that these are things they need to work on; those are the things they should go after," he says.

"So I think that collective responsibility around giving feedback is the key. And we've seen some really big changes in behaviour culture and style as a consequence of it being a collective feedback position from an entire leadership group."

2. Always reflect on the lessons learnt from failure

Hanna Hennig, CIO at Osram, says the one key lesson for all employees is to embrace the opportunity to improve when things don't turn out as expected. She says the important thing about making the most of failure is to acknowledge that it is the learning process, rather than the criticism itself, which moves an organisation forward.

A very good way to provide constructive feedback is to conduct a lesson-learned session and then go through the outcome with the person, says Hennig. "If, for example, a project did not run well, if a presentation failed or if a concept did not work out, it is very helpful for an organisation, a team or a person to reflect back and ask some key questions," she says.

As a first stage, those questions involve a consideration of what things went well and what things might have been accomplished, despite the lack of success. Second, she says it is important to analyse why and how things went wrong. Finally, everyone needs to reflect on what they need to do in order to succeed in the future.

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That process of continual learning is important for Hennig, as her firm Osram is undertaking its own digital transformation process. She says positive change comes from keeping people motivated, whatever the circumstances.

"In a one-on-one session, where it is about direct feedback, I always start the constructive criticism with a positive acknowledgment – regardless how minor it is – and then reflect back with my peer, team member, and even my manager, on the failure and its root causes, ending with a conclusion," says Hennig.

"My experience is that it is only with this approach that you keep people motivated and ensure a learning experience which will make them grow and enhance the organisation's maturity."

3. Be honest and know what makes your people tick

Matt Harris, head of IT for Mercedes-AMG Petronas Motorsport, has a straightforward best-practice tip for other CIOs looking to give feedback to colleagues.

"Be honest," he says, suggesting the key to success is being upfront as quickly as possible. "A lot of the time, giving criticism to others is actually trying to make sure that you're being truthful yourself. And you need to give people fair warning and an understanding of the context you're talking about."

Harris says another key thing to remember is that every person is different. He's learned that when he's speaking with two different people about one thing in one way, whether that's technology or whether it's some feedback, he expects to get two different responses.

"If you go and talk with an information security specialist, a data scientist, or an end user-support professional, you're going to get incredibly different levels of tolerance to feedback. It's a hard thing to give a general strategy on – but your approach is likely to be blended. The key to success is knowing your people and knowing how your people might respond to criticism," says Harris.

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