Four Experts, One Question: How Do You Give Constructive Feedback That Is Actually Constructive? Share:

Steve Williamson, Dir. Product Development, eRep, Inc.
Monday, August 31, 2020

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Tags: #feedback #leadership #communication

We chose four experts in business, HR, customer service and employment consulting and asked them one question:

How do you give constructive feedback that is actually constructive?

This is a tough situation that we all face in both our professional and personal lives. Being able to give constructive feedback in a way that can be taken constructively is a hallmark of good leadership, but it's also a skill we can all strive to achieve as individuals.

We also asked our experts to chime in on four scenarios we might face in the workplace. They give us their insight into how to address each of these challenging situations.

The Experts

Our experts are: Shep Hyken, Steve Browne, Olga Piehler, and Galen Emanuele.

Shep Hyken is a customer service and experience expert and the Chief Amazement Officer of Shepard Presentations. He is a New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestselling author and has been inducted into the National Speakers Association Hall of Fame for lifetime achievement in the speaking profession.

Steve Browne, SHRM-SCP, is the Vice President of Human Resources for LaRosa's, Inc., a regional Pizzeria restaurant chain in the Midwest United States. He has 30+ years working as an HR professional in a variety of industries. He is the author of two books, HR on Purpose!! and HR Rising!! He is a current member of the SHRM Board of Directors. Steve also runs a global HR network called the HR Net which reaches 12,500+ HR and business professionals globally each week.

Galen Emanuele reframes the way teams and leaders communicate, drive culture, and show up together in business. His unique keynotes, ongoing content, and workshops provide tools to create and sustain exceptional team culture, engagement, and high-level performance. See more content on his website at or get his free weekly #culturedrop 5-minute videos at:

Olga Piehler is Director of Program and Business Development at Making Everlasting Memories (MeM), a software as a service platform that aids funeral homes and their staff in the personalization of the services they provide to honor a life lived. She is a lifelong learner and a member of "Team Human" and cares deeply about connecting and learning more about other humans. Olga is also the founder of, a firm that helps organizations reduce the gap that exists between their aspirational values (purpose) and practiced values (organizational health/culture).

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The Question

How do you give constructive feedback that is actually constructive?

Shep Hyken: There are entire books written about this topic, but for this, let's consider that the basic idea behind ?constructive feedback' is to help someone improve. First, constructive feedback doesn't have to come as a result of something negative. It can take a positive situation and make it better. It can take something positive that happened accidentally and make it permanent. But, what if it's not? What if someone didn't perform the way they were expected to? Telling someone they did something wrong without helping them understand how they can improve is not constructive. If you tell someone they did something wrong in a way that's demeaning or belittling it's also not constructive. While I don't suggest you sugarcoat an issue that's a problem, you can approach it in an honest way and be up front with the suggestion on how to improve, turning the negative into a positive.

"When people are given feedback that teaches them, they don't fear being berated for their efforts." — Shep Hyken

Galen Emanuele: The thing that stands out to me the most is the importance of an established foundation of trust, safety and vulnerability. Those elements are the path to healthy communication and relationships with other humans. When you have those, it doesn't matter if the other person is your boss or employee or friend. All of these conversations are made possible when the other person knows that you have their best interest in mind, and even in challenging conversations they know you're coming from a place of care and support and an investment in their success.

Olga Piehler: Regardless of the scenario, when approaching any type of feedback conversation there are a few things I always keep in mind and intentionally reset my mind to when approaching and preparing for the conversation:

  • What are my values? Will my conversation be in congruence with my values?
  • What is my intent? What is the underlying motivation for me to engage in this conversation?
  • What is the impact I want to make? When the conversation is over what do I want the world to look like?
  • What don't I know? My view is not the full view.
  • How would this conversation look as a dialogue?

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Four Scenarios

We presented four scenarios to our panel of experts, examples of specific situations where you may be called upon to give constructive feedback. This is the advice they gave.

Scenario 1: You notice that an employee who reports directly to you has been under-performing over the past two weeks. They seem disengaged and distracted. Assuming you don't have any information or clues about why, how do you broach the subject?

Olga Piehler: I would reach out as soon as I noticed that something feels off — in this case it appears to be based on under-performance that is not congruent with how my teammate shows up. I would simply ask how they are holding up (in our team I normally ask for a number in a scale 1-10 with 7's not available). And I would listen as they share. I would also share with them how I'm doing on that same scale and why. This approach works in a culture of high trust and psychological safety. If I haven't already contributed to building relationships with my team, it would be very difficult for that person to openly share what they are experiencing.

I would not bring up the subject of under-performance (in this scenario, it is something that is not a trend). The under-performance was a piece of information to alert me that something was off and out of sorts with my team member. My concern is for their well-being, and to understand what they may need from me right now. I would ask how can I support them, or what would my support look like at this time? I am a firm believer that the under-performance will take care of itself when my team member gets through what is going on and receives the support they need. My role in this scenario is to understand and support.

Steve Browne: Whenever I notice a change in performance, I ask for time to talk with the employee directly. I'll ask politely how things are going with the hope they'll share what they're facing. If it's something that I can help address, then I'll bridge that topic and see where things go with the understanding that they know I'm there for them. If they don't share anything pertinent, I'd say, "I've noticed a change in your performance, Bob. I'd like to talk with you about that so we can see how to identify any possible causes and how to move forward." I'd reassure them that it's safe to have discussions like this and that I'd hope we could continue to have candid conversations going forward.

Galen Emanuele: I would schedule a time with them to chat instead of spontaneously springing the conversation on them. To address it I would be pretty straightforward, most likely, "I feel like I'm picking up that you've seemed a bit distracted lately, or maybe you have something going on that is impacting you or your work. I just wanted to connect to create an opportunity to get your perspective and see if there's anything we need to chat about, or any kind of support you need from me." Based on their response, the conversation could go a couple of different directions. It's important that leaders prioritize trust and normalize vulnerability in a culture of honest feedback. That lays the groundwork for conversations like this to be transparent and safe. Whether they realize that their behavior is noticeable or not, the conversation would center around what they need from me to support them and how we can partner together to get them firing on all cylinders again.

"It's important that leaders prioritize trust and normalize vulnerability in a culture of honest feedback." — Galen Emanuel

Scenario 2: You and a colleague work as a team supporting a very important client. You get along well with the client but your partner and the client always seem to butt heads. Do you talk with your partner, the client, or both? What do you say?

Steve Browne: I'd talk to my partner first because we have a business relationship that depends on both of us to be in alignment so that we can perform and meet our revenue objectives. I'd say, "It seems that when we interact with this particular client, you seem to take the opposite approach they present. Is there a reason for this?" Then, and this is key, I'd listen to my partner to understand their perspective and context. I'd want to gauge their response to see if the conflict is personal, emotional, or just a difference in approach. After we discuss this, I'd express the need that we should work through this so we can either work with the client or move on. Once we come to a resolution, I'd make sure we talk to the client to work on that side of the relationship and see where it goes.

Galen Emanuele: I would definitely address it directly with my partner first and immediately. To start the conversation, I'd frame things by saying that I have some observations and assumptions that I want to discuss with them to get their perspective about the experience they're having with the client. I would give clear examples and share my assumptions about what's going on for them and the client. I would then ask for clarity and my partner's read on the situation. I would then focus on finding solutions to change the dynamic depending on the source of the tension. If I felt like the tension was noticeable or the relationship with the client had been strained, after suggesting some solutions I would lightly bring up the same conversation with the client, mention my observations, get their perspective, and then share the potential solutions we came up with to improve the process and their experience with us. The relationship with the client and their experience needs to be priority number one, above egos or procedures.

Olga Piehler: I would talk to my colleague. I would start the conversation with: "Talk to me about your thoughts and feelings surrounding the client." I would listen to what is being shared and ask more questions to get a deeper understanding. Questions or prompts I would use might be: "What makes you say/think/believe that?" or "Tell me more, what do you mean?" I may even bring up the "On a scale of 1-10 (can't use 7) ? where do you land on that?" I would then compare what is being said with what I have noticed — is it congruent? Do my colleague's thoughts and feelings about the client match the "butting heads" behavior I have observed? I would share with my colleague my observations and my thoughts/concerns about how I think it may affect our relationship with our client. Together, we could then talk through what may be a more conducive path to a positive collaborative relationship with our client and how to accomplish it.

I would not talk to the client unless through the conversation I learn information such as unethical, unbecoming or abusive behavior by the client. In that case, I would have a conversation with the appropriate people within our and their organization.

"Together, we could then talk through what may be a more conducive path to a positive collaborative relationship with our client and how to accomplish it." — Olga Piehler

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Scenario 3: In advance of an important meeting, you learn that your supervisor is planning to take an approach that, in your judgment, is guaranteed to fail. How do you discuss the issue?

Galen Emanuele: I would set up a time to sit down with my supervisor and start the conversation by asking some thoughtful, clarifying questions instead of just coming in strong with my opinion. I would get clarification around the objectives behind the decision and the outcome that they're hoping for as a result of this choice. Once I had asked a number of questions and had a really clear understanding of their perspective and assumptions, I would ask for an invitation to share some of my thoughts as well. Likely, "Thanks for sharing all of this with me. If you're open to it, I'd like to share some thoughts and perspective that I have about this as well and get your take and insight on some of the things rolling around in my head about it."

In conversations like this it's extremely helpful to ask questions first and postpone having an opinion for a moment, and then ask if they are willing to have a conversation about it. Bombarding them with your opinions and opposition right out of the gate will put them on the defensive. Making the conversation feel collaborative and avoiding defensiveness will put them in a much more receptive space to hear your thoughts and concerns. Also, just because you think it will fail doesn't mean you're right; you may or may not be. The value of teams and leaders being able to have conversations like this means addressing possible pitfalls and challenges before they happen by adding more perspectives and seeing solutions from multiple angles. It also increases buy-in from employees if leaders are willing to hear people out and have conversations like this, even if they ultimately go with their original direction.

Olga Piehler: This is a tricky one for me. I have been at both sides of the equation here, and have taken the approach of both saying something and remaining silent.

My predisposition is to say something and normally I would simply say it. It would sound something like "Regarding the _________, as I have thought about it, here are some of my concerns and this is why _______." I would then share what I would do instead and why, explaining how it addresses the concerns I had with the original approach. I would also ask for other thoughts to begin a dialogue that may lead to a better approach altogether (not the original and not my proposed one — a better one now that we have more information) or a greater sense of understanding (perhaps my concerns were based on not knowing information that now makes the original approach completely appropriate).

Steve Browne: This is the classic "it depends" because you aren't clear on the working relationship with your supervisor. If it's healthy, then I'd have no problem stepping in and saying, "Can you cover how you're planning to approach this again?" After they express their approach, I'd counter with, "Interesting. Have you considered this?" and then share my concern by talking through a different framework of their approach. I wouldn't correct them, but I would talk about alternative scenarios to broaden their approach before they go into their next step. I want to see them succeed.

If the supervisor/subordinate relationship is more impersonal and distant, I'd probably still step in because I don't want to see them fail. We need to understand that our ultimate goal is for others to succeed so the company succeeds. It doesn't mean this relationship would improve, but I don't exist for my supervisor. I want to see the organization do well over time.

"I would talk about alternative scenarios to broaden their approach before they go into their next step. I want to see them succeed." — Steve Browne

Scenario 4: A co-worker who is also a personal friend has become very vocal about their political views at work. You are hearing a lot of rumors indicating they may get reprimanded over it. Do you warn your friend, and if so, what do you say?

Olga Piehler: I would talk to my friend/peer, not so much as a warning of "Hey, if you don't stop doing this, I fear you will get into trouble" but as a way of understanding better what is behind their louder vocalization of political views at work. If they are about to get reprimanded, that is a signal to me that the behavior is creating a barrier (to some degree or with certain individuals) that is not conducive for a collaborative, highly relational environment around this person. This to me has higher negative long-term impact for the individual's career and contributions than the short-term reprimand. I would seek to understand the passion behind the views and the desired impact or outcome sought by their expression. I would also want to understand or discuss their long-term desires and aspirations as well as the work/team environment they want to help co-create. I would listen and I would try to help hold a mirror for reflection and I would want to help the individual be more in alignment with the future desired outcomes and impact and seek current behavioral modifications that would align to who they aspire to be (in a broader more general sense).

"I would seek to understand the passion behind the views and the desired impact or outcome sought by their expression." — Olga Piehler

Steve Browne: You warn them. This is a very difficult conversation because politics are emotional regardless of the party or issue. People want to take sides and they rarely are open enough to listen and consider the opposing viewpoint of others. I'd let them know that the workplace is not a conducive environment to be so vocal on politics. I'm sure they'd counter with comments like "it's my right" or "I have free speech." Well, in the workplace that's not true. You can have your opinions and views, but if they affect performance, the company can (and will) address it. That includes your attitude and approach especially if you dig your heels in on something. I'd let them know that outside of work, I'm willing to listen to, and debate, them on their views so they have a safe outlet. It just doesn't have to happen at work.

Galen Emanuele: I would definitely have a conversation with them about it. Personally, my approach would likely be, "I want to run something past you, and I?m a bit hesitant because I think it might be a delicate topic and I'm experiencing a bit of anxiety around bringing it up. It's not about our friendship, it's not terrible, and you haven't done anything wrong, but I feel like it's important enough to mention because I care about you immensely as a friend." Then I would share my observations and concerns, and reinforce that they don't need to defend themselves to me, that it's not a criticism or accusation, just simply my observations and concerns. I would let them know that if the situation were reversed I would definitely appreciate them sharing their perspective with me.

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Four Experts, One Question: How Do You Give Constructive Feedback That Is Actually Constructive?

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Steve Williamson

Steve Williamson

Innovator/Banker - Dir. Product Development, eRep, Inc.

Steve has a career in information technology, software development, and project management spanning three decades. He is the author of a series of fantasy novels called The Taesian Chronicles (, and when he isn't writing he enjoys cycling, motorcycle adventure touring, and buzzing around the skies in his home-built flight simulator.

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