Let’s be honest. Performance reviews usually generate anxiety for both the reviewer and the reviewed. Giving feedback to your team members can be difficult. Feedback deals with a very sensitive part of our sense of self - our self worth - and so it  can get emotional.

Effective feedback not only improves your team's morale, but it also motivates your team to grow and do a better overall job. It’s important to understand what constitutes effective feedback, because it has the power to bring harmony and cohesion to your team, not to mention the kind of motivation that will move mountains. But if not phrased correctly or offered at the right time, feedback can make your team become standoffish to your leadership.

The problems with feedback 

Usually, team leaders are encouraged to offer ‘constructive’ criticism with a big side dish of compliments. Some even say you should strive for 90% positive and 10% ‘constructive’ feedback. This can make team members think “Hmm, I’m doing a pretty good job.” Will they really hear what they need to improve?

Others embrace the praise sandwich technique - where you mention what can be improved in between two slices of positive feedback. But again, does the team member you’re reviewing really hear and understand what they need to improve? And most importantly, will this kind of feedback help anyone improve?

And then there's the big, ugly ‘performance review’. Everything that has been documented about a person’s performance is held back for a year (a whole year!), after which it is brought up out of the context. This kind of feedback is usually perceived by the team member sprung out of the blue, especially if they’ve been having a pretty good few weeks or even months.

When do people take in feedback the most? 

A 2012 research paper, “Tell Me What I did Wrong: Experts Seek and Respond to Negative Feedback,” in The Journal of Consumer Research, shows that across different domains, novices sought and responded to positive feedback, while experts sought and responded to negative feedback. 

In one experiment, students in beginner-level French classes and advanced-level French literature classes were surveyed. They completed a questionnaire about choosing an instructor. The survey asked whether they would prefer an instructor who focused on what students were doing well, for example pronouncing new words well, or an instructor who focused on the mistakes they made and how to fix them.

The beginner-level students predominantly wanted positive feedback, while those who had been taking French classes longer wanted to know what they were doing wrong and how to correct it.

This study reveals that as people become more experienced, feedback begins to serve a different purpose. Novices might not have much confidence, although they most probably have the potential, and so they need more encouragement. On the other hand, those with a higher level of expertise are more secure and more focused on their progress. They can take ‘negative’ feedback without becoming discouraged, and often even seek it.

Another thing to point out is that the students in the study wanted to know how to correct their mistakes. In other words, it’s not useful to simply say, ‘This is wrong,’ but also to explain why it is so and how it might be corrected.

It’s true that you only have control over half of the feedback process - providing it. What your team member chooses to hear is another story all together. Humans have a tendency to hear what they want to hear, but offering specific, timely feedback that is not buried in a sea of praise increases your chances of being heard.

How to offer effective feedback

Don’t give feedback only when something goes wrong

Make feedback regular, both when things are going great and when things can be improved. This kind of consistency will make it more likely for your team members to listen to negative feedback and take steps to improve their performance, without thinking that you’re being overly harsh.

Focus on working better, not feeling better

Giving feedback is not about making your team members feel better, but about showing them how they can work better. Focus on objective ways in which they can improve their performance rather than try to cushion them from feeling bad about the feedback you’re giving.

Open it up for upward & lateral feedback 

We’re all human and we all make mistakes. Sometimes, we are aware of those mistakes and take the steps to improve ourselves. Other times, we’re simply oblivious to what we did wrong because our attention is often divided among 15 different things. And this can happen to anybody on your team, from the intern to the founder.

Opening up the opportunity for upward and lateral feedback will remove the stigma of feedback. It will also provide cohesion and inspire commitment for your team, because it underlines that everyone on the team is constantly trying to improve themselves.

Be precise

Do yourself and your team members a favour and don’t beat around the bush when you clearly want to express how something can be improved. Be frank and express exactly what can be worked on, but do so in an objective manner.

Offer suggestions and solutions 

Don’t just say what is wrong, but also say how it can be improved. This will help your team members understand the direction in which you’re leading them, which is imperative if your business is to thrive. Most people genuinely want to do well on the job, they are just unsure how to do it.

 ‘And’ and ‘What if’ rather than ‘But’ 

Avoid the cliche “I like what you did here, but…” It offends your team members’ intelligence. Of course they know that you’re less than thrilled with the work they’ve done as soon as you pull out the “but”. This can impact how they take in what comes after the ‘but’.

Instead, go for statements such as “What you did can work really well. What if we also do…” or “This part of what you did looks great, and we should…” This gives you an opportunity to give constructive feedback that includes solutions without criticizing and putting down your team members.

Criticize in private 

In the quest for transparency, startup and small business founders sometimes end up criticizing individuals in front of other team members. Although they do it with good intentions, this can really affect your team dynamics.

Not only will the team member who is being criticized feel pretty bad about being singled out, but it can also affect the morale of the whole team and even affect how that team member is being seen by the rest of the team. As much as possible, refrain from giving negative feedback in front of other team members.

Don’t get personal 

Sometimes, it’s hard not to get personally offended when a team member does something the wrong way, while to you it is obvious how it should have been done. Prevent yourself from giving feedback when you are feeling this way. First, work through your own feelings toward that team member, then work with them to understand why a mistake was made, or what made them take that specific approach. Do you think that they would intentionally make a mistake if they could prevent it?

Check in for progress 

Check in regularly with team members to see if they are taking steps toward improving their performance. If it will help, you can even make a plan together and then check in to see how the plan is going along. Make sure to point out improvements when you see them, but also point out if you see there is still room for improvement.

Giving feedback might get easier the more you do it, and you will probably begin to see a big change in your team’s performance and motivation. The challenge is balancing specific feedback with how you deliver your message so you’re not perceived as overly critical. Improving both how you offer feedback, and how your team perceives feedback can be a lengthy process. It surely won’t happen overnight, but the improvements you will see in your team are worth it.

How do you offer feedback to your team? Share your experience with other readers in the comment section below.