For Leaders: How to Give Constructive, Compassionate Feedback

Performance reviews have a reputation of being tense for both those receiving feedback and the reviewer. At the end of an unusually chaotic year, reviews may feel even less welcome. But giving feedback is a crucial part of advancing your team’s careers and strengthening your organization.

Gretchen Stroud, senior vice president of talent at Hilton (Photo via LinkedIn)

Gretchen Stroud, senior vice president of talent at Hilton, oversees the company’s talent from recruiting to leadership development. She said the company (No. 2 on the 2020 DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity list) is currently focused on training leaders at all levels to give constructive feedback.

She offered DiversityInc Best Practices some of her tips to help the feedback process become less dreaded and more productive — a step she said is key for the overall improved performance of any company, large or small.

“This is critical for business success,” Stroud said. “It’s critical for the long-term performance and innovation of any organization.”

Don’t just give feedback once a year.

“One of the things I always tell my team is that if we sit down for our performance conversation and at year-end, you don’t already know 90% of what I’m going to say to you, then I haven’t done my job as a leader in giving you feedback over the course of the year,” Stroud said.

If the only time you give feedback to your team is during yearly performance reviews, they’re going to miss out on advice that can help them not only advance in current projects, but also advance in their careers. Additionally, if feedback only comes in the form of an avalanche of criticism once a year, the conversation may be overwhelming for the employee — and will ultimately end up being less productive overall.

“That’s not a constructive nor compassionate conversation ever and especially after this past year,” Stroud said.

Feedback should come as warranted throughout the year so team members can easily identify strengths and weaknesses and improve their work along the way, she added.

Don’t be so afraid of being tough that you aren’t constructive.

Some leaders worry that they might be viewed as mean or that they may hurt their direct reports’ feelings. Feedback should certainly be objective and aimed at building someone up, but sometimes the advice a leader needs to give may be tough. Feedback should never be accusatory or surprising. It needs to be delivered compassionately, but also clearly and directly.

“I argue that it’s meaner to give no constructive feedback at all, and then let that person stagnate in their career or fail to advance,” Stroud said.

One tactic leaders often take is the sandwich method: delivering a tougher critique cushioned between two slices of positive comments. This method can be effective but be wary not to bury constructive criticism to the point where the employee leaves unsure of what they need to improve upon.

“The leader thinks they’ve delivered that hard message, but they did it under so much cover that the team member wasn’t able to really pull those key messages out,” Stroud said. 

Give feedback at the right time and place.

As everyone knows, 2020, in particular, was a collectively difficult period. Even now, people are still dealing with challenges like illness, caretaking responsibilities, financial strain and mental health issues. Pair that with the continuous and long-term pain of systemic racism and inequality that continues to disproportionately impact people of color, the idea of giving harsh or “tough” criticism could appear especially daunting. One way to be compassionate with your critique is to make sure you give it at the right time.

Stroud said she meets every other week with direct reports to give immediate feedback. During those check-ins, she is also sure to ask where they might need support.

“I usually start with, ‘How are you?’ ‘What’s going on?’ ‘Tell me how you’re feeling,’ especially as we’re going through this pandemic,” she said.

If someone comes in and says they’re struggling or overwhelmed personally, that moment is not going to be the best time to give constructive feedback. Stroud will then regroup to find another time to talk with that direct report, a time when they will be more open to the advice.

It’s also important to assess when the person will most benefit from the feedback. For example, Stroud says she has a direct report who works across the globe. She typically holds meetings with employees in the morning, but she schedules performance conversations during her evening and his morning so that he can be fresh, focused and present at the beginning of his day.

In short, employees will benefit most from feedback when they’re in an emotional and physical space where they can be focused and receptive.

Prepare. Think of concrete examples to support your critique.

Instead of simply telling someone they sometimes seem unprepared for meetings or have other issues completing certain aspects of their job, back that critique up with concrete examples. Giving examples makes your feedback more specific — and it may also reveal other areas where you can further support your direct reports.

Someone seeming unprepared because of another reason could be a quick fix. The review should be a conversation to absolve critical feedback.

“Maybe it’s a conversation that you just haven’t had yet, [such as], ‘11:00 is when my kids are all on recess break from virtual school, so it’s really hard for me to be fully present in a meeting at 11:00,’” Stroud said. “Well, that’s great to know. So, now, how can you as a leader be flexible?”

Maybe someone wasn’t unprepared but struggles with public speaking and could use some pointers. Giving specific examples can help employees understand exactly what’s working and what isn’t and the resulting conversation can help leaders identify where they can better support their direct reports to achieve their goals.

Set the tone from the beginning — and start small.

Get to know the ways your direct reports respond best to feedback. When a new employee joins the team, gradually introduce them to your leadership style.

“I always have a few get-to-know-you sessions: ‘Tell me about you. How do you like to work? How do you like to receive feedback? How do you like to be recognized?’”

Stroud then shares her own philosophy on the importance of giving frequent constructive feedback, starting small with compliments and critiques and progressing as needed.

“Acclimate them to feedback along the way, instead of just coming out, guns blazing in a once-a-year feedback conversation,” Stroud said.

Give everyone the benefit of receiving feedback.

Some leaders may feel uncomfortable giving feedback to people they see as different from them. For example, a boss who is a white man may feel wary of critiquing a direct report who is a Black woman. This discomfort may be part of the reason why underrepresented groups report having less direct contact with and support from higher-ups. Whether this apprehension is conscious or subconscious, it can be damaging.

Constructive criticism is essential to help professionals grow their careers and walking on eggshells around employees who are different from you will ultimately harm them.

“As organizations are striving to create a more equitable, inclusive and diverse employee base, every leader really needs to make sure that we are giving every team member the benefit of the same kind and level of compassionate, constructive feedback that we’re giving to the other people on our team,” Stroud said.

If you’re uncomfortable, reach out to someone you trust for advice on how to best tailor and deliver your critique. Grant historically underrepresented employees the same benefit of authenticity, vulnerability and transparency as you give others.

Follow up.

Don’t just give feedback once and fail to ever mention it again.

“If I told you in your performance review that you need to do a better job of communicating in group settings or when giving presentations, but then in your next six presentations I attend, I give you zero feedback, you wouldn’t know whether you’re doing great or terrible or somewhere in between,” Stroud said.

Don’t leave employees in the dark. With regular, relevant feedback, your direct reports won’t have to wonder if their efforts to improve are paying off. They’ll be able to fine-tune their work along the way.

“That is so critically important [because] reinforcing long-term behavior change is the goal of any constructive feedback that we’re giving,” Stroud said.

Latest Best Practices

Marc Womack

Marc Womack, CEO of TD Auto Finance in a One-on-One Interview with DiversityInc CEO Carolynn Johnson

TD Auto Finance CEO Marc Womack and DiversityInc CEO Carolynn Johnson sat down together recently in an interview over Zoom to discuss how Womack’s company (part of TD Bank, No. 18 on the DiversityInc Top…

Carolynn Johnson

DiversityInc CEO Testifies Before House of Representatives; Committee on Financial Services Introduces ‘Diversity Data Accountability Act’

The United States House Committee on Financial Services held a hearing on Thursday, March 18 titled, “By the Numbers: How Diversity Data Can Measure Commitment to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.” During the Subcommittee on Diversity…