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Five tips on giving constructive feedback to a team member

Debra Stevens, Training Director at Dramatic Training Solutions, explains how to make criticism positive and encouraging

16 June 2022

Receiving feedback is an essential part of your career development. Without it, nobody can get better at what they do. But giving feedback is a delicate matter.

Feedback might be about acknowledging success or a less-than-ideal performance. It is never easy to do, especially if it involves criticism. At the recent RIBA conference, Future Leaders 2022: Learning to Lead, Debra Stevens of Dramatic Training Solutions suggested some helpful tips.

“Talented, creative people are a valuable asset,” she points out. “You want to retain them, not alienate them. Feedback should boost motivation: it is about helping others to be the best they can be.”

Make sure you are well prepared

“Commit to the process,” Stevens urges. “Active listening” is key. You should be listening with the goal of understanding and this is hard to do in a meeting that has been crammed in between other meetings.

“Get rid of any presumptions you might have about the feedback recipient,” she continues. This is especially important if there will be any critical aspects to your feedback. Check your intentions, she advises. Providing feedback is about helping a team member improve, not about scoring points or getting something off your chest.

You should never enter a meeting with any pent-up tension. Stevens suggests taking a walk beforehand: find ways to relax.

Pay attention to how you are coming across

Be as approachable as possible. It is always a good start to ask how the team member is, and how things are going outside work.

It may be helpful to ask them what they would like to get out of the meeting: let them know that this is a space of emotional safety. When moving on to the feedback itself, look for positives: acknowledging their strong points or the progress they have made.

Be aware of your body language and facial expression. You do not want to appear to be making a judgement and sometimes our bodies can betray us: practising speaking to camera shows us how we come across and is a valuable insight for any kind of meeting or presentation.

Slow things down, Stevens suggests. Resist the urge to respond quickly to everything that is said.

Instead of feeding back, 'feed forward': focus on the future and how your team members can realise their potential

Think of feedback as ‘feedforward’

This is perhaps Stevens’ most important tip of all. Move the conversation towards the future as quickly as possible, she advises. Focus on possibilities for growth and learning.

“We cannot change the past but we can change the future. If the recipient has made a mistake at work, make it clear that they should not dwell on it.”

Many people are much more comfortable with ‘feedforward’ – discussing themselves in the future – than talking about their past performance, Stevens finds. The best feedback gets the recipient into a learning zone, in which they are considering their own development in the context of the team.

Use ‘RISE’

The acronym ‘RISE’ stands for:

  • Reflect (recall, ponder, evaluate)
  • Inquire (seek ideas together through questioning)
  • Suggest (introduce and discuss ideas for current improvement)
  • Elevate (talk about growth and the future)

It is a useful memory aid to prompt productive lines of discussion and to ensure the feedback session never gets confrontational. Stevens gives an example of how to take a negative comment, or assessment of a situation, and put a different spin on it.

“Your opening for the presentation was flat: it didn’t work and was a wasted opportunity!” This is clearly a negative, blunt and demoralising way of putting things. But here are four alternative ways of discussing this same situation:

  • Reflect: “How do you think the presentation went? I liked the way you engaged the client.”
  • Inquire: “How do you think we could have engaged the client earlier?”
  • Suggest: “You may want to think about some of the images, and bring them in at the beginning to grab attention.”
  • Elevate: “For the next one, let’s get together in advance and craft the beginning for maximum impact.”

Know how to prompt and how to question

As the above example shows, suggestions or “commands” can make great prompts, such as “tell me when …” or “talk me through …”

These invite self-directed reflection on the recipient’s behalf, encouraging them to reflect on their own performance and come up with solutions.

A good way to proceed is to use linear questions: the answer to a question can be the germ of your next question. You should aim to avoid leading questions: anything that directs the recipient to an expected answer. Give them the option to reply with a yes or no: they do not have to agree with your interpretation of how things are.

Thanks to Debra Stevens, Training Director, Dramatic Training Solutions.

Text by Matt Milton. This is a Professional Feature edited by the RIBA Practice team. Send us your feedback and ideas.

RIBA Core Curriculum topic: Health and wellbeing.

As part of the flexible RIBA CPD programme, professional features count as microlearning. See further information on the updated RIBA CPD core curriculum and on fulfilling your CPD requirements as a RIBA Chartered Member.

First published Thursday 16 June 2022

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