The thought of giving constructive criticism to your coworker might make you nervous, but the truth is, people want feedback—even if it could be perceived as critical. In fact, according to data outlined in a 2016 Forbes article, nearly ⅔ of employees (65 percent) want more feedback—and according to data outlined in 2014 article for the Harvard Business Review, a whopping 92 percent agreed that negative (or redirecting) feedback, if delivered appropriately, is effective at improving performance.
Clearly, your coworkers want to hear feedback—and by providing that feedback in an honest and helpful way, you can not only help improve their performance, but also establish yourself as a better colleague and leader within your organization.
But how, exactly, do you do that? How can you deliver feedback in a way that will not only ensure your peers are receptive to hearing it, but also shows them that you have their best interests in mind?
- Practice, practice, practice.
- Meet in person.
- Don’t make it personal.
- Back up your feedback with examples.
- Don’t reserve feedback for criticism.
1 Practice, practice, practice.
One of the key elements of a successful feedback conversation with a coworker? Proper preparation.
“Providing a peer with constructive feedback can be hard, but not impossible,” says Betty Rodriguez, Senior Workplace Analyst at FitSmallBusiness.com. “If you prepare for the conversation, you are more likely to have a valuable exchange.”
Before you approach your colleague to deliver feedback, take the time to plan out how you want the conversation to go. What feedback do you want to deliver? How do you want to deliver that feedback? What examples can you share that will help them better understand your feedback? Practice exactly what you’re going to say and, if possible, ask a trusted colleague (like your manager) to listen and offer any insights on your delivery—and how you might be more effective.
If you’re delivering challenging feedback, you should also have a plan in place for what to do if the conversation goes south.
“You should expect and anticipate potential defensiveness, and think ahead of time about how you will respond to it,” says Chuck Mollor, co-founder and CEO of leadership development and talent optimization firm McG Partners. “Be self-aware of your potential emotional reaction to someone getting defensive, especially if they become emotional. The more you can anticipate and prepare, the better the chances the conversation doesn’t get heated or escalate.”
The point is, the more you plan and practice, the better prepared you’ll be to deliver feedback in effectively—and the more likely it will be your coworker will receive it effectively.
2 Meet in person.
In an attempt to minimize your discomfort, you might be tempted to deliver challenging feedback through digital channels (like email or Slack). But if you want your feedback to land well with your colleague, you need to resist that temptation, fight through the discomfort, and deliver your feedback in person.
“Providing feedback in person sends a message that your feedback is important,” says Mollor. “You can’t connect over the phone, text, [or] email… in the same way you can in person. Your ability to read a person, and for them read you, is a significant benefit. When you are both more comfortable with each other, the feedback can be richer, more meaningful, more accurate, and more honest.”
Things have a tendency to get lost in translation over digital channels. If you send feedback over email, for example, your colleague might misinterpret your tone—and immediately go on the defensive.
If you and your colleague work in the same office, set a time to meet in person. If you need to deliver feedback to a remote coworker, schedule a time to hop on a video conference so you can deliver the feedback face-to-face. Having a conversation in person (or, if working remotely, over video) is the most effective way to deliver feedback—and can help ensure that your message doesn’t get misinterpreted.
3 Don’t make it personal.
As mentioned, the majority of employees are open to feedback. But what most people aren’t as open to? Unsolicited opinions.
“High-achieving organizations train employees to provide feedback based on data points,” says Rodriguez. “This not only helps reduce confusion but also mitigates any feelings of anxiety or self-defense.
A feedback conversation isn’t an opportunity to share your opinions on how they do their job. It’s an opportunity to share your fact-based observations on their job performance in an honest, straightforward way.
“Don’t start a crucial conversation by sharing your conclusion. Share the facts and premises that led you to your conclusion. Lay out your data. Explain the logic you used to arrive where you did. Gathering the facts is required homework for a healthy conversation.”
It’s also important to steer away from pointing fingers or making sweeping generalizations.
“When talking to peers and coworkers, it is important to avoid accusatory and inflammatory language that is likely to provoke negative feelings,” says Jeff Rouse, Sr. HR Consultant, at Strategic HR Inc. “It’s important to avoid statements that are labeling such as ‘you’re doing a lousy job’ or ‘you’re lazy.’ Instead, focus on what is actually observable, like work results or costs to the business.”
Let’s say you have a coworker who constantly misses project deadlines—and it’s making it challenging for you to get your work done on time. A not-so-helpful way to deliver the feedback would be saying something like:
- “You’re so irresponsible; you keep dropping the ball on these deadlines and then I’m the one who ends up looking bad because I can’t get anything done!”
If you want to be more effective, stay away from getting personal and stick to the facts:
- “So, I’ve noticed that deadlines A, B, and C were missed on dates X, Y, and Z. Because those deadlines weren’t hit, my team didn’t have the assets they needed to complete the next stage of the project on time. How can we work together to make sure that doesn’t happen moving forward?”
By keeping things based in fact instead of getting personal (“these deadlines were missed on these dates” vs. “you’re so irresponsible, always missing deadlines!”), you lay the groundwork for a more objective conversation—and make it easier to work towards a solution with your coworker.
4 Back up your feedback with examples.
Building on the last point, the more objective you can make your feedback, the easier it will be for your coworker to receive—and that includes backing up your feedback with plenty of examples.
In an article for Harvard Business Review on what good feedback really looks like, Craig Chappelow, leadership solutions facilitator, Americas and Cindy McCauley, senior fellow, Americas at the Center for Creative Leadership write:
“Feedback providers first note the time and place in which a behavior occurred. Then they describe the behavior — what they saw and heard. The final step is to describe the impact the behavior had in terms of the feedback providers’ thoughts, feelings or actions.”
Let’s say you’re working with a colleague on a copy project—and they’re consistently delivering work with typos, grammatical errors, and other mistakes. Instead of making a general statement like:
- “Your work is riddled with mistakes!”
… share concrete examples of those mistakes—and how those mistakes directly impacted you and your work. So, you might say something along the lines of:
- “I’ve been noticing a lot of mistakes in your copy recently. In article A you submitted last Monday, there were 10 typos in your draft. In article B, submitted last Wednesday, there were run-on sentences in the final two paragraphs. And in article C, submitted yesterday, the conclusion wasn’t finished before you sent over your draft for review. Receiving copy from you that hasn’t been edited really pushes back the project timeline; I spent an extra hour editing each of these articles before I was able post them to the website. I know you can write amazing copy; how can I support you to get your editing in a better place?”
By taking this approach, you’re not only providing concrete, indisputable examples to support your feedback, but you’re also framing it in a way that shows your colleagues you care about them, their job performance, and their growth—which can make them more open and receptive to making changes.
5 Don’t reserve feedback for criticism.
One of the best ways to make sure your coworkers are open to your feedback? Making sure to deliver just as much positive feedback as criticism.
In the aforementioned HBR article, Chappelow and McCauley write:
“Positive feedback is critical for learning. People are often quick to notice what’s wrong, but it’s equally important to pay attention to and provide input on what is working to support development.”
- If you notice a coworker going above and beyond to get the job done, pull them aside and let them know their efforts are appreciated by the team.
- If you notice a colleague has made changes to improve their performance, let them know those changes aren’t going unnoticed—and that you (and the rest of the team) can see the positive impact those changes are having.
- If your colleague stays late to help you wrap up a project, thank them—and then loop in their manager to let them know how their efforts positively impacted your project.
Bottom line? If you’re the kind of person who delivers feedback whenever you notice a coworker doing something great, they’re going to be a lot more receptive when the time comes to deliver constructive feedback.
The better your relationship with your coworkers, the easier the feedback process will be
Delivering feedback to coworkers or peers can be a challenge. But with these tips, you can deliver feedback in a way that maintains and strengthens the relationship—which can make delivering feedback easier in the future.
“In the end, it comes down to building rapport with the people that you work with,” says Rouse. “Strong relationships that are built on comradery and mutual trust allow for more comfortable and accessible feedback conversations.”