by Steve Adubato, PhD

Regardless of what we do professionally, the only way we can truly improve our performance and leadership is to receive and accept critical feedback without being defensive or argumentative. Exceptional leaders recognize this and are committed to providing constructive feedback to help their team members grow. The following tips and tools will help you give critical feedback even when it is hard for your team members to hear:

--Be as specific as possible. Employees need to know exactly what they need to do to improve their performance and contribute to the team in a more productive fashion. For example; "Mary, you did a great job on the Jones report. Let's take it a step further. I noticed that you didn't go into great detail on what you think our options are. Next time, make concrete recommendations that evaluate the costs and the risks." The key is to give people information that they can do something with. Conversely, if you say; "Way to go on the Jones report, Mary." That's okay to a point, but sooner or later Mary needs to know exactly what she needs to do to improve.

--Avoid judgmental comments. Statements or comments that can offend or otherwise insult cause people to become unnecessarily defensive. When this happens, the likelihood of your feedback being embraced and understood decreases significantly. For example, “Mary, you need to be more enthusiastic about working here. Your casual attitude is starting to affect your work.” First of all, what exactly does 'enthusiastic' mean? That's a very subjective word. Further, how exactly is Mary's lack of enthusiasm affecting her work performance? The problem is that the leader has said nothing that Mary can use to improve her performance. Instead, ask the team member a probing question that gives them the opportunity to explain the behavior you have been observing without coming across as judgmental. An important leadership lesson to remember is – ask before you assume. When you understand the situation you will be able to more effectively offer practical advice the other person can use.

--Give feedback face-to-face. Sure, e-mail, faxes and phone messages can compliment your coaching efforts, but the most powerful and effective feedback is usually in person. This allows leaders to read body language and attempt to interpret the other person’s reaction to feedback being given. It’s hard to do that when you are interacting via technology. In any case, coaching I do via phone or video conference is only effective once a face-to-face personal connection is well established.

--Give feedback as quickly as you can. Too often, leaders wait too long to talk to an employee about something they are concerned about. The problem is that your feedback is often lost. This is particularly true when giving positive feedback – recognize people's efforts immediately.

--Keep a positive attitude. If someone on your team is falling behind or has missed a deadline ask, “What obstacles or issues are in the way of you meeting the goals we agreed on?” The key is to frame feedback in a positive fashion as opposed to assigning blame or fault. After all, the purpose of giving feedback is not simply to chastise an individual it is to help him or her improve and develop.

Analilia Mejia, Executive Director of NJ Working Families Alliance shares her leadership advice about the importance of constructive feedback.