Constructive Feedback in Four Simple Steps

Many people view giving constructive feedback as an odious task. Those who revel in it … well, who wants to work with those people? There is a happy middle: the caring and genuine coach who really wants to see others put their best foot forward. So, you know, be that guy by learning and practicing the skills outlined in this article.

Author’s note: For the purposes of this article, I will use the terms constructive feedback and redirection interchangeably to mean “feedback intended to discourage an observed behavior.” If you want to learn about giving positive feedback, I’ve got you covered.

Why is giving constructive feedback important?

Most of us are doing the best we know how to do. Yet we only know what we know, and we only know it from our own perspective. Often, we don’t do something a better way simply because we don’t know a better way exists. This is why I like the term “redirection.”

Other times, we may not realize the negative impact our behaviors or words are having on others. Personally, I don’t like repeating mistakes or being less than effective; most people will say the same thing.

Finally, if you are in a management role, your success is dependent upon the success of your team members. You owe it to them, and to yourself, to be that caring and genuine coach so you can all step up your game.

When should I give someone constructive feedback?

Always provide feedback in a private setting. Ask permission before giving someone feedback, unless the person has specifically asked for feedback or you have already established a trusting relationship. If you are a supervisor or mentor, you have a responsibility to provide objective, constructive feedback. I would also argue that you have a responsibility to give feedback to your coach, mentor, and manager!

In any case, you earn the right to give constructive feedback by having provided affirmation (see instructions here) to the individual in the past, usually at a 2:1 ratio or higher.

Alright, fine. I’ll do it. How does this work?

I propose a four-step method, which I remember with the acronym BITE:

  1. Behavior:
    Begin by specifically stating the person’s words, actions, or behavior that was detrimental or ineffective.

    “I noticed you were struggling to stay awake during parts of the presentation today.”

  2. Impact:
    Next, describe the impact that choice had (or that it failed to have a positive impact). Bonus points if you can give the person the benefit of the doubt.

    “It created the impression that you aren’t interested in the training.”

  3. Tomorrow:
    Provide a better alternative for “tomorrow.” Remember, this person probably did the best they knew how to do.

    “Next time you notice yourself getting sleepy or zoning out after sitting for too long, please get up quietly and stand in the back of the room. You’ll not only appear more engaged, you’ll be better able to pay attention to the speaker.”

  4. Encourage (or Enforce)
    When appropriate, reinforce (because you’ve hopefully already established) that you want to see this person succeed and that you have confidence in their ability to do so.

    “We have a long week of training ahead of us, and I’m excited to see how you will apply these new techniques to your design initiative.”

If the behavior is completely inappropriate and unjustifiable or if it recurs despite multiple discussions, it may be time to work with your Human Resources department to determine disciplinary action. That step is beyond the scope of this article, so I’m going to assume that your colleague is having an uncharacteristically rough day… Let’s move on.

Common Pitfalls

While immediate feedback is typically best, there are some exceptions:

  • If you or the other party are upset, or if you can’t articulate all four components of the BITE model described above, wait until everyone is calm and you have collected your thoughts.
  • Before you give constructive feedback or redirection, be willing to explore your motives – honestly and objectively. If your aim is anything more or less than a genuine desire to see someone else succeed – if you have any selfish interests at all – you may need to walk away from the situation entirely.

Practice This Skill

For one week, write down BITE-style redirection as you notice areas where you might be able to help someone else be more effective or efficient.

At the end of the week, ask for permission to provide some of the feedback directly. You can say something like, “I’m trying to improve my leadership skills. Could I practice by giving you some feedback on your presentation last week?” (You don’t have to speak in italics, though.)

Giving redirection can be scary, but I promise that it gets easier each time you do it. If you’re not ready to try it, practice giving positive feedback for a few weeks first!

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