Giving constructive feedback to employees is a core skill of successful leaders. Underperforming teams need to understand your expectations, regardless of how difficult the conversation is. While the emotional burden weighs on your shoulders, you can’t hold back these words.
The trick is to give this feedback in the right way.
So how do you give constructive feedback to employees that they will act upon?
I can tell you now that saying things like “Do better next time!” or “You aren’t meeting my expectations.” is not enough. To the person hearing your words, it’s like you’re clubbing them with disappointment.
To create positive change, we need to do better as leaders.
In this guide, I will show you how to give constructive feedback that employees will positively appreciate. They will thank you for your thoughts. It requires you to give them a ♠️Spade♠️.
Disclosure: This article includes affiliate links to any books I reference. I may receive compensation when you click on links to these products.
Constructive Feedback Starts with Your Mindset
When giving constructive feedback to an employee, first ask yourself:
What is my goal with giving this feedback?
Do you want to show that you didn’t like their work? They didn’t meet your expectations? Do you just want to make the other person feel bad?
People won’t listen to you if your goal is to express dissatisfaction.
Constructive feedback that creates positive change comes from a place of growth. When you intend to help the person succeed, your words will leave an impact. Wanting to help others achieve their goals shows you care. This mindset makes them feel like you’re on their side.
Everyone has room to improve. Showing an authentic desire to help will leave a lasting impression.
Prevent Defensiveness to Your Constructive Feedback
Giving constructive feedback to employees requires more than saying the right words. The emotional response of the other person plays a significant factor.
Think about when you learn you’re about to receive constructive feedback. What goes through your body?
These physical feelings are natural when one senses a threat to their survival. In the corporate world, those threats involve others thinking you’re not valuable.
Think about this feeling whenever you give constructive feedback. If you surprise them with your candid thoughts, a defensive response is natural. You surprised them with a potential threat to their job.
To solve this problem, let your employee know they are about to receive feedback. Then wait a moment.
These extra seconds will give them time for their body to respond and calm down. Having time to process these feelings will result in a better reception of your words.
Here are a few subtle ways you can give this space:
- Tell the person that you would like to give them feedback then walk to a room to have a private conversation.
- Message the person before you create a link to a video call. The extra minute of setup will give them space.
- Wait two or three seconds after telling them about your constructive feedback. Yes, the space is awkward, but the extra moment is needed.
The SBIR Framework Creates Effective Constructive Feedback
To organize my thoughts, I use the SBIR Framework.
This acronym defines the structure of how to deliver constructive feedback:
- Situation: State the specific situation where you observed the behavior.
- Behavior: Explain the precise behavior you saw.
- Impact: Describe the exact impact the person’s actions had on you.
- Request: State the explicit request you would like to make of the person.
I love this framework as a way to give feedback. SBIR’s format forces you to explain the contextual information you observed. You need to define the situation, the specific behavior, and how it directly affected you. I’ve had positive success with the people who receive feedback in this form.
Let’s look at an example from the wonderful show Ted Lasso.
Example: Constructive Feedback in Ted Lasso
Ted Lasso is a great show to learn how to be a successful leader. It’s no surprise that there are numerous examples of giving constructive feedback.
In this scene, Roy Kent is giving constructive feedback to Jamie Tartt requesting him and others to stop bullying Nate. Let’s take a watch:
This is how Roy uses the SBIR method to give effective feedback:
- Situation: Roy explains that Jamie has a lot of influence over the team and other players look up to him.
- Behavior: The players pick on Nate and Jamie laughs at the bullying.
- Impact: The other players think it’s ok to pick on Nate.
- Request: Roy stares at Jamie, showing his disapproval. This silence is his request to have Jamie tell others to stop bullying Nate.
This is an important moment of leadership for Roy. He confronts an influential teammate and requests Jamie to improve. Roy uses specific details of the negative behavior to explain the impact.
Unfortunately, Jamie does not act upon this, but that’s part of his story arc of growth.
Stop ♣️Clubbing♣️ People, Give Them a ♠️Spade♠️
Right – the whole spade metaphor. It’s a similar mindset to how I approach giving positive feedback to colleagues.
You see, I’m not talking about shovels. I’m talking about suits of cards.
(Trust me – I have a point to this)
When it comes to negative feedback, we have two types: Clubs and Spades.
♣️Clubs♣️ feel like you’re being hit with a blunt object. You feel bad, you know you need to overcome something, but where do you start? This is constructive feedback that has no detail, it’s not specific. Giving clubs results in your employees feeling like they are underperforming. They want to improve, but have no idea how to do it.
Instead, give a ♠️Spade♠️. Spades help others grow their garden of skills. Yes, it will take a lot of work and time. You need to dig holes and attend to the seeds of new abilities. A spade makes it easier to start. This constructive feedback is specific. It’s actionable. Sure, it may hurt at first, but at least people will know what to do.
So with these details, you can now ask yourself before you give negative feedback:
Am I giving constructive feedback that’s a club or spade?
People can do amazing things with spades.
More Examples of Giving Constructive Feedback to Employees
📝 Example 1: A Lack of Status Updates from an Underperforming Employee
I know you’ve been working on that difficult library upgrade the past month. I see you’re committing updates to our code repository. This is great, but I’ve noticed you’re not giving regular updates to the team. The lack of status updates can lead to uncertainty. People won’t know your capacity to take on new work. They won’t know when you will complete your work. Going forward, can you provide a high-level update at the weekly team meeting?
🐞 Example 2: Too Many Bugs Needs Effective Feedback
I’ve seen that the team has been working hard to hit your project’s deadline. Unfortunately, I’ve been seeing few bad habits from the team. There are a lack unit tests and quicker reviews in the team’s pull requests.
For the changes that touch existing code, I’ve seen an increase in customer-facing bugs. I would like you and the team to write unit tests when touching existing code. Then, after you complete the project, do a review of the bugs and identify common causes that we need to address.
🦹♂️ Example 3: Giving Difficult Feedback to a Manager that Steals Ideas
At today’s design review, I noticed that Susan expressed the hamburger menu idea. A bit later, I saw you repeat the same idea, but did not attribute the original idea to her.
You may not be aware you’re doing this, but there is impact to this behavior. Over time, this behavior will lead others to not value one’s work as much. I would like you to practice attributing the ideas you repeat back to the original person. Not only will this help others, but will increase the respect they have for you.
Providing constructive feedback to employees is important to helping your teams grow.
Put yourself in the mindset to help others become more successful.
Help your employee prepare for feedback by letting them know ahead of time.
With the SBIR Framework, your feedback will be contextual and actionable. Use specific details to ensure that your employee understands your notes.
In summary, stop clubbing people with blunt criticism. Give them a spade of constructive feedback to help them grow their skills. Keep these feedback techniques in mind for your next performance review.
- Radical Candor
- Crucial Conversations
- Non-Violent Communication
- How to Give Positive Feedback to Colleagues – with Examples!
- How to Manage Existing Engineering Teams
- How Ted Lasso’s Leadership Lessons Made Me a Successful Leader
- Kudos to LifeLabs for teaching me the ♠️Spades♠️ metaphor
Before you go
The purpose of Build the Stage is teaching YOU how to be a successful leader.
If you learned something new from this essay, I’d appreciate it if you’d complete one of the following actions:
- Share this essay: By sharing, you help others grow their skills. Save a click with the buttons below.
- Join the Discussion: What’s one thing you learned from this essay? Let me know on Twitter or Email.
- Give Feedback: Candid feedback is the most effective way to develop one’s skills. Send me an email to let me know how to improve Build the Stage.
- Subscribe! If you’re not a part of the Build the Stage community, it’s never too late.