by Marie Palacios

How should we share feedback if we want it to be heard?Business man drawing a check on smiley face

Tips for sharing constructive feedback in a way that gets heard

Any time a supervisor calls staff into the office to offer “constructive criticism” it is inevitable that feathers will get ruffled. Staff on the receiving end of the conversation immediately retreat into a defensive mode and what could have been a productive conversation becomes a painfully awkward exchange.

Does this sound familiar?

Believe me. I’ve been there.

There is nothing more disheartening than to sweat blood and tears to build up a program or an organization only to feel as if all your efforts are being torn down by someone who is suppose to support you.  It’s tough to digest feedback from a supervisor, board of directors, or other key members of the organization who haven’t been working in the trench with you. We tend to justify why their feedback can be dismissed. Perhaps the supervisor lacks “perspective” or has no clue how to really do your job. Right?

In my 15+ years in the nonprofit world I have had the opportunity to be on the receiving end of constructive criticism more times than I can count.  I will admit that I left a fair share of those conversations frustrated, feeling underappreciated, and ready to throw in the towel.

During my time as an executive director I have learned that it is just as painful to open a constructive conversation with staff as it is for them to receive it. I’ve searched for ways to open conversations in a manner where both sides can be heard. Just as I think I have it figured out, a new staff member or volunteer with a different personality and communication style comes my way and I find myself learning even more ways to hear and be heard.

While I am the first to admit that the challenge never ends, I have found the following strategies helpful as I work to increase communication within my professional circle:

1.  Eliminate The Term “Constructive Criticism- That term automatically prompts defensive behavior and responses. When inviting staff/volunteers/board members to join you in a conversation that involves constructive feedback consider using one of the following phrases: a brainstorming session, program/project evaluation, team evaluation conversation, or a program development conversation.

2.  Start The Conversation On A Positive, Yet Honest Note- This might involve thanking a staff/volunteer/board member for their efforts, praising their work ethic, creativity, etc. Be genuine and never compliment just to “build them up” before “tearing into the problem areas.” Be clear about the objective of the conversation.

For example:  “Bill, thank you so much for taking time out of your busy schedule to chat with me. I noticed that you have been pulling extra hours and dipping into your own pocket for program supplies which speaks volumes about your passion for this program.  You really are such an asset to this organization and I look forward to hearing more about your experiences here as well as ideas you would like to share.  I invited you to this conversation today so that we can explore ways that our organization can better support you and in turn help increase the impact of the program you lead. You have a challenging job. I’m sure we both agree that there are areas we need to develop so that you have the tools you need to grow this program and be even more effective in your position.

3. Talk “With” Not “At”- Make sure that the individual realizes that you value responses to the questions/issues you pose and that most importantly you welcome their ideas. Rather than starting with “constructive criticism” consider beginning the conversation by inviting the other person to share how they have contributed to growth/successful outcomes as well as the obstacles they have encountered.  Allow staff to offer suggestions for how personal or professional shortfalls might be overcome.

4. Provide Tools Staff Need to Achieve Goals- In the nonprofit world staff tend to wear lots of hats and it is impossible to be great at everything. If a staff is not achieving goals we need to provide the structure and tools they need to be successful. For example, some staff members work well alone and are self motivated. Others require specific work plans and thrive with structured reporting schedules.  Establish systems for assigning tasks, tracking progress, and reporting outcomes on a regular basis. Confirm best communication practices so that information is shared in a timely manner. Ensure that staff has the project materials, man-power, hours, and administrative support to accomplish established goals. This can be true for volunteers, board members, co-workers, anyone really.

5. Clarify Expectations- Before closing a conversation with staff it is important to quickly re-cap their strengths and areas for improvement/development. Establish a “success plan” that specifically outlines the staff responsibilities, set goals, timeline for accomplishment, evaluation measures, and consequences of poor performance or incentives for exceptional performance.  Written documentation is key any time staff/program performance is reviewed. It is equally helpful to get signatures from all parties in the conversation as well as a date for a follow-up conversation.