The do’s and don’ts of constructive feedback

Giving and receiving feedback is essential to creating a culture where team members feel valued, safe, and connected to each other. In this post, I covered how to conduct and participate in speed feedback sessions, or “Sfeedback.” Sfeedback is optimal for positive feedback, as the sessions are too quick to provide constructive feedback in a way that maintains psychological safety.

Still, constructive feedback is crucial for creating and maintaining a healthy feedback culture on your team. Below I outline some best practices for giving and receiving constructive feedback based on what I’ve learned as an engineering manager at CircleCI.

Good intentions

Let me start with the most important fact: constructive feedback is a gift. It takes a lot more effort and time to prepare for constructive feedback than positive feedback (if you do it right)! Try to remember that the person receiving the feedback is your colleague and you care about their growth. Framing your feedback with the mindset of care and growth will help you discern the right feedback to share.

There is a good reason we don’t call it negative feedback. Good constructive feedback isn’t about pointing out the receiver’s flaws. It’s about giving them advice in an actionable way so they can work to improve.

Create a safe space

For some, constructive feedback can be interpreted as a judgment and cause the receiver to get defensive. That’s why creating a safe environment for the receiver is crucial to delivering effective feedback. It allows people to feel supported and respected.

Building trust between you and the receiver is an important part of creating a safe space. If the receiver does not believe you will give them feedback for their development and growth, it might come across as a complaint or judgment.

This is where a team bonding session like Sfeedback comes into play. After having a few positive Sfeedback sessions, your teammates know that you appreciate their good work, and you care about their growth and development.

Deliver feedback privately

Give yourself and the feedback receiver a private space to have the session. An open space where everyone can hear your feedback conversation could make the receiver feel judged in front of others. Take the time to find a private room or 1:1 video call and give enough time to have a complete conversation. Rushing through constructive feedback can lead to misunderstandings.

The key here is setting yourself up to deliver your good intentions effectively. Don’t let other factors interrupt your prepared feedback.

Be specific

Focus on facts and observations rather than speculation and judgment. This will help your good intentions come across and make it easier for the receiver to follow through on the feedback you give them.

Explain what you’ve observed and ask the receiver how they feel about your observation. Is that a fair observation to make? Start from there rather than dropping your conclusions on them. Prepare to hear their version of the story as well. What you observed and how you felt in that situation does not change; however, jumping to conclusions too quickly can lead to misunderstandings.

Sharing your observation will allow you to get some nuance to the situation you witnessed and help you and the receiver better understand what needs to be done going forward.

Offer support

Always offer support when giving constructive feedback. When you give constructive feedback, you’re hoping the receiver will take actions to improve. Offering support is a great way to encourage them to follow up. The support can be as simple as sharing your personal experience.

Some of the most helpful constructive feedback support I’ve ever received came from my former team lead. I was having difficulty dealing with a senior engineer and she shared with me that she had also struggled with a very similar issue in the past. She gave some advice based on what she had learned and offered a follow-up feedback session to check in on the same issue. By sharing her own experience, she made it clear that she empathized with me and the follow-up session held me accountable to resolve the issue.

It bears repeating: feedback is a gift. Whether the receiver takes it or not is their choice. The receiver may not care to improve, or they may disagree with you on how to improve the team. If that’s the case, you can’t push them to take follow-up action. However, sometimes the receiver does not know where to start or how to improve. By offering support, like holding follow-up feedback sessions, you’re not only showing you care, but the feedback is also more likely to be effective.

Hard work pays off

Feedback is a potent tool that anyone can use, and yet, doing it effectively is incredibly difficult. Even though it’s hard to give good feedback, it’s worth it. You can’t work alone to build everything. For a team to be effective, you need to share your thoughts and work style with others. Feedback is an excellent tool to determine how your team can work together effectively.

Lastly, I would like your feedback on this post! Please feel free to reach out to me by email. I would really appreciate it. Thank you in advance!