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Giving constructive feedback is essential for being an effective manager and teammate, but delivering it can be a challenge. Perhaps you need to tell someone they tend to ramble in meetings and their colleagues have started tuning them out, or that an offhanded comment they made may have been offensive to others in the group.
Big or small, when the constructive feedback you have to offer to someone is negative, it can be tempting to keep it to yourself. You might not want to hurt their feelings, or you may work in an organization where everyone says only “nice” things, making it hard to say anything but.
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Sitting on your feedback isn’t your only option. Researchers have found that there’s a straightforward method that softens how others perceive negative feedback, and it’s so simple that it’s easy to overlook: If you want people to be receptive to your constructive feedback, start by saying your good intentions out loud.
First, let’s consider the research, then we’ll look at how to give voice to those good intentions in everyday work interactions.
Harvard Business School associate professor Leslie John and her colleagues have studied how people respond when someone tells them something they don’t want to hear. Her research reveals both good and bad news for feedback givers.
First, the bad news. Ever heard the phrase “Don’t shoot the messenger?” Unfortunately, John found that that’s exactly what people tend to do. Most important, the research found that people don’t just feel a jolt of general dislike when someone criticizes them — they actually assume the person making the constructive comment has ulterior, often malevolent, motives. If you’re telling Matt that he rambles, he might assume it’s because you want to hog more of the meeting time yourself. If you’re telling Abby her joke was off-color, she might think it’s because you want to embarrass her.
You’re probably thinking, “In that case, it’s wiser to say nothing.” But if you say nothing, there’s a good chance these employees will never address the issues. If you do say something, you have a chance to help your colleagues and improve your workplace culture.
That brings us to the good news. Expressing your good intentions changes how people hear what you say next. John and her colleagues found that when they reassured people by saying, “I want the best for you,” before making an unwelcome comment, the other person heard it differently and perceived the feedback giver as more likable. A simple reframing made all the difference.
You might be thinking, “I know I have good intentions, so why do I need to say them out loud?” After all, most of us go to work each day assuming that our colleagues are acting in good faith.
It comes down to human nature. Research shows that when someone offers unsolicited negative feedback and we’re left guessing at their intentions, we tend to assume malevolent ones. But when recipients of unwelcome news believe that the other person has good intentions, they are much less likely to reject the criticism.
What could you say to reassure someone of your good intentions at work? It could be as simple as what John said in her experiment, such as “I want the best for you” or “I want you to be successful, and right now, I see something getting in the way of your success.”
Ideally, make the good intentions specific to that person and the feedback you’re about to give. To help Matt with his rambling, you could say, “I want to make sure people listen to you in meetings because your ideas are incredibly insightful, but right now, I think some people tune you out.” Then mention that you noticed that when he was proposing an idea in this morning’s meeting, people appeared to be checking their phones and email. In Abby’s case, it might be, “I want to make sure people respect you and feel safe around you. You bring so much to this team. But I overhead you tell a joke yesterday that could have offended some people.”
I find it takes a bit of extra effort to say my good intentions out loud. It sometimes feels awkward — isn’t it obvious that I have good intentions? — but I do it anyway. It’s worth that moment of awkwardness. When I say, “I want good things for you,” people bristle less, they ask more questions, and sometimes, though not always, they even thank me for sharing feedback they probably didn’t want to hear.
It’s a few extra words, and they can make all the difference.