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The manager’s guide to giving constructive feedback

If you’re a manager or boss, having difficult conversations with employees comes with the territory. everywoman’s Kate Farrow explains how to ensure things go smoothly.

Kate Farrow
Kate Farrow

Many managers struggle to give constructive feedback to their direct reports – a survey by Interact found 37% are worried about a potentially negative reaction.


The survey also found the majority of bosses (69%) are uncomfortable communicating with employees in general terms – from giving clear directions to holding one-to-ones.


Unfortunately, tough conversations are a fact of business life, and there will undoubtedly be times when tackling behaviour is necessary. Here are three ways to approach that difficult chat.


Imagine a scenario where two employees both miss a critical deadline. One person’s mistake is attributed to a bulging to-do list or a family emergency, the other to what you perceive to be their current lack of motivation and reliability.


The latter is an example of the fundamental attribution error, whereby we attribute people’s behaviour to their core character rather than to their situation.

In order to enter a problem-solving mindset, you must first ensure you’re not holding any pre-existing biases.


Try to remove emotion, set aside any filters through which you might be viewing the situation and examine it as an objective observer might.


Even if you ultimately decide the reason for the deadline failure was poor reliability, by examining the subject from various angles, you might have uncovered your direct report’s likely defence and can therefore prepare accordingly.


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If you’ve ever done a personality test, you’ll be aware of the differences between “thinkers” (objective, firm, analytical) and “feelers” (subjective, involved, sensitive).


Where a tough conversation is concerned, it’s best if you can embody elements of both types, so you’re truly seeing the whole picture.


This is where the zigzag model can help. Start by considering the facts. Then move on to the bigger picture and consider how the issues may link to other areas. Examine reality, logical analysis and a rational point of view.


Often we stop here if we are a thinker. However, it is essential to also consider the emotional impacts and what is best for all involved, not just business priorities.


One of the biggest concerns of the manager delivering feedback is that the individual will respond negatively.


It’s much harder for your employee to do this if you frame the feedback around wanting to offer a valuable lesson for the individual to progress in future.


Ask yourself whether this is indeed your objective, and if you discover that you’ve a different, less directional, positive reason for wanting to have the conversation, question whether you’re taking the right approach.

A negative reaction is far less likely if you keep the conversation two-way. Demonstrate that you want to understand more about what went wrong from the other person’s perspective and challenge them to uncover solutions to stop the problem arising in future.

The aim is to establish – by mutual agreement – what behaviour or actions you want to see less and more of in the future.


By working together you’re more likely to get buy-in from an employee than if you simply hand them a “teach sheet” of dos and don’ts.

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