Mastering the Art of Constructive Feedback in the Workplace

How to give constructive feedback

My journey to understanding the intricacies of giving feedback started when I worked as an educator and had to talk to my students and their parents - either to reinforce positive or redirect negative behaviours. In this role, I tried to master the art of giving feedback. A few days ago, I was on the other side, listening and talking about my work and progress with my supervisor. It was during this three-month feedback session that I experienced firsthand how well-delivered feedback could inspire growth, motivate performance, and instill a sense of confidence. This experience sparked my quest to delve even deeper into the art of providing meaningful feedback to employees, and this article is a culmination of the insights gleaned along this journey.

In this article:

Benefits of Regular Feedback

Employee feedback, a key factor for professional growth, offers employees a well-rounded perspective on their workplace contributions. Just image working for months without having a clear understanding of what you're doing right or wrong. You may unintentionally stop behaviours that are beneficial while also remaining oblivious to actions that need improvement. So yes, feedback is one of the most powerful influences on learning and achievement, but this impact can be either positive or negative (1, 2). If delivered well, feedback can support employee improvement, enhance motivation, and ultimately drive business success. Specifically, the right feedback within an organisation contributes to:

  1. Boosting Performance: Regular feedback is an essential tool for performance optimisation. It enables employees to understand their actions' efficacy and areas requiring improvement. The continuous cycle of feedback and guidance can support employees in progressively elevating their performance standards.
  2. Fuelling Motivation: Research reveals that consistent feedback correlates with heightened employee motivation. It nurtures a growth-oriented mindset among employees, strengthening their resolve to strive for better performance. Positive reinforcement through feedback promotes confidence, boosting employee morale and incentivising them to continue their productive behaviours.
  3. Elevating Engagement: Lack of feedback can potentially lead to employee disengagement. Demonstrating concern for your employees' growth and aspirations through regular feedback can foster a more committed and engaged workforce. 
  4. Fostering Self-awareness: Feedback serves as a mirror, reflecting an employee's strengths and areas of development. This feedback-driven self-awareness is a pivotal factor in personal and professional growth.

Types of Feedback

 Feedback in the workplace has one primary purpose: to enhance employee performance. To achieve this aim, your feedback can either reinforce positive behaviours or redirect negative behaviours—thus helping employees understand where they're excelling and where they're falling short. In work (3) and life (4,5), both negative and positive feedback have their place and their time. 

Reinforcing Positive Behaviours

Reinforcing positive behaviours is a feedback method that involves highlighting and praising a team member's successful actions or behaviours. This approach aims to encourage the continuation and repetition of these successful behaviours.

  • Example: Imagine your team member, John, has recently given a presentation that was particularly clear, engaging and well-structured. In this case, you might give feedback like:

"John, your presentation this morning was excellent. You were clear and concise, which made it easy for everyone to understand the project's status. I also noticed how you engaged the audience with questions and discussions. Keep up this approach in your future presentations."

This type of feedback reinforces John's successful presentation skills, encouraging him to continue employing these techniques in the future.

Redirecting Negative Behaviours

Redirecting negative behaviours, on the other hand, involves addressing actions or behaviours that are not beneficial to the team or the individual's performance. The goal here is to guide the individual towards better habits or approaches.

  • Example: Let's assume a team member, Sarah, often interrupts her colleagues during meetings, preventing others from contributing their ideas. You might address this with feedback like:

"Sarah, I appreciate your enthusiasm and active participation in our meetings. However, I've observed that there have been instances where you interrupt others while they're speaking. It's important that everyone gets a chance to voice their thoughts. In future meetings, could you please make sure to let others finish their thoughts before you start speaking?"

This feedback redirects Sarah's interruptive behaviour by highlighting the issue and suggesting a more collaborative behaviour she should adopt.

Both reinforcing positive behaviours and redirecting negative behaviours are vital for a well-rounded feedback approach that fosters continuous improvement and effective performance. However, people have been shown to cope with negative feedback by disputing it, lowering their goals, reducing commitment, misremembering or reinterpreting the feedback to be more positive, and engaging in self-esteem repair, none of which are likely to motivate efforts to do a better job next time (6,7).

This doesn't mean that you should avoid giving feedback to redirect negative behaviours, just apply the right strategies.

Strategies for Delivering Effective Employee Feedback

Understanding the necessity of feedback is one thing, but the efficacy of feedback lies in its delivery. Here are some steps to ensure your feedback effectively resonates with your employees:

The Discovery Stage – Prior to your feedback session, craft your message thoughtfully. Consider the intended outcome of the meeting and the key points you aim to reinforce to maximise employee growth.

  • Before initiating a feedback session with a member of your team, let's call her Emily, you might reflect on the following:
    • What's the purpose of this meeting? e.g., To discuss Emily's performance during the recent project.
    • What points do I need to reinforce? e.g., Emily's outstanding leadership skills but also her difficulty in meeting deadlines.
    • What outcome am I hoping for? e.g., Emily continuing to lead effectively and improving her time management.
    • How can I help Emily achieve that outcome? e.g., Offer strategies or resources for better time management.

Presenting Observations and Consequences – Start the meeting with specific observations regarding the employee's performance and the resulting outcomes. Detailed examples can help employees comprehend their actions' impact more clearly. During the meeting, you could say:

"Emily, you have demonstrated excellent leadership skills during the recent project. Your team has mentioned feeling very supported and guided by you. However, I also observed that some deadlines were not met. This led to some delays in our project timeline and caused some strain on other teams who were dependent on your outputs."

Setting Expectations – Once you've shared your observations, delineate your expectations. Make it clear what you hope to see in their future performance, thereby underlining the objective of the feedback session. You might then convey your expectations:

"We value your leadership skills, Emily, and we'd like you to continue nurturing your team as you've been doing. On the other hand, it's crucial that deadlines are met in the future to ensure smooth workflow. We are all working towards the same organisational goals, and meeting deadlines plays a big part in that."

Understanding Employee Perspectives – Feedback is a two-way street. It's vital to invite the employee's viewpoint, providing an opportunity for them to share insights and address any unforeseen circumstances. You could then invite Emily's viewpoint:

"I'd like to hear your perspective, Emily. Were there challenges that we might not be aware of that contributed to missing the deadlines? Is there something that you need help with to improve in this area?"

Mapping Out Next Steps – Conclude by focusing on the future. Suggest actionable strategies for growth, reinforcing the direction you'd like them to take following the feedback session. Finally, you could propose an action plan:

"Moving forward, I suggest we create a more detailed project timeline with clearly defined intermediate deadlines. This could help you better manage your time. Additionally, we could explore some time management tools or training. Would that be helpful for you, Emily?"

Ensuring a Positive Reception - The secret to effective feedback is striking a balance between being forthright and considerate. This delicate balance is crucial when providing constructive feedback. Here are a few tips:

1. Precision and Directness

Ensure your feedback is concise, direct, and specific. To help employees comprehend and act upon your feedback, avoid vague generalisations and provide concrete examples instead.

2. Behaviour over Character

Focus on actions and events rather than the employee's personality. Feedback should pinpoint specific behaviours rather than making judgments about an employee's character.

3. Stick to Facts

Keep your feedback objective, rooted in direct observations rather than assumptions or personal feelings.

4. Avoid the Sandwich Technique

This technique, which involves cloaking criticism between two positive comments, often dilutes the intended message. It's better to be upfront and honest in your communication.

Lastly, strive for regular feedback. This encourages an atmosphere of constant growth and prevents minor issues from escalating. Regular feedback is an integral component in nurturing a culture of continual improvement. Seize opportunities for feedback as they arise and commit to scheduling routine check-ins with your team. Remember, feedback is not a one-off event but an ongoing process that shapes a thriving, engaged, and productive work environment.


In today's competitive corporate landscape, effective feedback serves as a vital tool for driving employee development and enhancing overall business performance. The key lies in being strategic, considerate, and consistent with your feedback practices. Whether you are a supervisor, manager, or team leader, understanding and implementing the art of feedback delivery can positively impact your team's motivation, engagement, self-awareness, and, ultimately, their performance.

Suggested reading on the topic:

(1) Hattie, J., & Timperley, H. (2007). The Power of Feedback. Review of Educational Research77(1), 81–112.

(2) Gnepp, J., Klayman, J., Williamson, I. O., & Barlas, S. (2020). The future of feedback: Motivating performance improvement through future-focused feedback. PloS one15(6), e0234444.

(3) Losada, M., & Heaphy, E. (2004). The Role of Positivity and Connectivity in the Performance of Business Teams: A Nonlinear Dynamics Model. American Behavioral Scientist47(6), 740–765.

(4) Feedback in private life: John Gottman (now a Professor Emeritus at the University of Washington) suggested that positive interactions must outnumber negative interactions by at least five to one in order for a marriage to succeed.

(5) Overall NC, McNulty JK. (2017). What type of communication during conflict is beneficial for intimate relationships? Current Opinion in Psychology, 13: 1–5. 10.1016/j.copsyc.2016.03.002 

(6) Audia P.G., Brion S. (2007). Reluctant to change: Self-enhancing responses to diverging performance measuresOrganizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes. 102: 255–269.

(7) Cianci A.M., Klein H.J., Seijts, G.H. (2010). The effect of negative feedback on tension and subsequent performance: The main and interactive effects of goal content and conscientiousnessJournal of Applied Psychology; 95: 618–630. 10.1037/a0019130