Most managers we talk to say they are only interested in giving their employees “constructive feedback.” But what's the difference between constructive and non-constructive (negative) feedback in the workplace?
Here’s our answer. Constructive feedback always focuses on the role the employee is playing, and specifically on the actions taken and choices made in support of high performance within that role. Non-constructive (negative) feedback, by contrast, focuses on the person – on his or her identity.
That distinction is worth understanding, because role-based feedback is always more effective than identity-based feedback. This communication principle is universal. It holds true whether you’re dealing with someone who reports to you, with a colleague, or even with someone higher up in the organization who asks for your help.
Consider the situation where an employee who reports to you – we’ll call him Jack -- delivers a project at a very high degree of quality – but delivers it late. The ineffective feedback you could give Jack about that event would focus on Jack’s sense of self. It might sound like this: “You know, Jack, you really make my job a lot more difficult when you insist on turning things in two or three days after what you know full well is the due date. You’ve gotten this note before. I just don’t understand why you can’t seem to grasp the concept of a deadline.”
Notice the emphasis here on Jack as a person, rather than Jack’s performance within his professional role. Who is making our job more difficult? Jack. Who is insisting on turning in projects late? Jack. Who can’t grasp the concept of a deadline? Jack. We may fool ourselves into thinking that this kind of speech can be filed under “constructive criticism,” but in fact there’s little or nothing constructive about it. It’s an attack, whether we mean it to be or not, and Jack can hardly be blamed for reacting defensively. There’s virtually no opportunity for him to learn and grow from what we’ve said.
Now suppose we were to focus, not on what we believe Jack’s flaws to be, but on how he can improve within the role he is playing on the team. What would happen then? Suppose our dialogue with Jack, in a private, one-on-one setting, went something like the following. (Note the words in bold type.)
You: Thanks so much for turning in that Collins report, Jack. It looked great.
Jack: Thanks. I was happy with how it came out, too.
You: Can I ask you something?
You: What did you think you did really well on that report?
Jack: (Any response.)
You: I would have to agree. (If you do in fact agree.) I’m curious, do you think there’s anything that we could have done better?
Jack: (Any response. Ideally, he will mention the fact that the project was late as an area where “we” could have done better. If he doesn’t, you can test his receptivity by saying something like…)
You: How did you feel about the delivery schedule?
Jack: Well, I know it came in a couple of days after the deadline that we agreed to on the spreadsheet. I realize that makes things tougher on you and on the people in Legal. I guess I could have managed my time better on this one and gotten it in to you on time.
You: That’s basically the note I got from Legal. The work was great. We just need it in the timeframe that was agreed on. So: Is there anything else you think we can do differently on this the next time around?
Jack: Well, if I gave myself a calendar note to check in with you a few days before the due date and give you my update on how the project is coming along, I think that would help me to focus on the due date.
You: Perfect. That works for me.
In this dialogue – which we at Sandler call the “well/better/different” model – the emphasis is not on Jack’s shortcomings as a person. Instead, the spotlight is on what we can do to help him perform better within the role he has accepted as a member of the team. The viewpoint is “we,” not “you.” And the goal is to get Jack to come up with the feedback, rather than on us delivering it to him.
The advantage of this approach is twofold. First and foremost, “well/better/different” starts a dialogue with the other person, as opposed to us looking for an excuse to launch a monologue. That’s important. Second, once that dialogue begins, we can get a sense of what the person’s current level of self-awareness is. In other words, we can learn whether Jack already knows that there’s an area for improvement that may be worth looking at. If he doesn’t, we can adjust accordingly – all the while making sure that we’re talking about his performance within the role, not his validity as a person.
Here’s the bottom line. The very best constructive feedback of all doesn’t come from you. It comes when the individual you’re talking to gives feedback to themselves – and then owns the conclusions they’ve reached about how to improve within the role. The “well/better/different” feedback model you’ve just read about makes that a much more likely outcome.