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.