Constructive Feedback

Constructive Feedback That Changes Behavior

Dick Billows, PMP
Dick Billows, PMP

Some time in every project manager’s and team leader’s career, they will have to give constructive feedback to a poor performing team member. Poor performance can include attitudes as well as assignments that do not meet your expectations regarding quality, timeliness or completeness. Constructive feedback is an effective tool for changing a poor performer’s behavior. It is also useful to give constructive feedback to team members whose assignments do meet all the requirements and your expectations. It can reward great performers and encourage them to keep up (or even improve) their good work.  Leading Teams Main Page

If your feedback is destructive, the team member will repeat their poor performance and your working relationship with that person will be adversely affected.  Even worse, your negative actions could cause other team members to perform less well. You need to know the best way to deal with poor performance. That requires following a proven procedure and using constructive feedback.

Constructive Feedback: A Typical Situation

Here is a typical situation you might face:

At the end of a long day, you received a phone call from a very influential stakeholder. She complained that her department did not receive the instructions that Pat (a member of your team) was supposed to give them last week.  She went on to explain that they need those instructions to be able to use the deliverable your team has produced.  As a result, the first phase of the implementation was going to be at least a week late, maybe more.  You wanted to ask why she waited a week to tell you about it. Instead, you apologized to the stakeholder, verified that you understood the problem, and hung up.   Leadership and Team Assignments

As you dialed Pat’s extension, one hand gripped the phone and you clenched the other into a fist. That idiot Pat’s screw up had cost you at least a week’s delay by not giving the stakeholder the instructions she needed.  This was the last straw with Pat.  All the other team members competed their tasks on time.  Pat was lazy and careless and didn’t give a rip about the project. Well, today Pat was going to learn a harsh lesson about doing the job correctly.

This project manager is going to have a conversation with a poor performing team member when they have built up a lot of anger and frustration. They’re ready to say things that will make the team member angry. This conversation will probably hurt their working relationship. Effective Feedback

The phone rang and rang until you realized Pat had gone home for the weekend.  

That was actually lucky.  The PM now has time to calm down and handle the situation the right way when they talk to Pat on Monday. Team Building

Constructive Feedback: Measuring Success 

Let’s first talk about what successful constructive feedback is. Is it making Pat feel guilty and embarrassed about letting the project team down? Is it making Pat promise to never do this again? Is it making Pat frightened of the punishments you may impose?

Success is none of those things. Success from giving constructive feedback is changing Pat’s behavior so he delivers the required instructions to the stakeholders.  Success is also changing Pat’s behavior so he finishes one task before moving on to the next.  Additionally, you’d like your relationship with Pat to be a good one. In a good relationship, Pat feels an obligation to meet your expectations.

With those constructive feedback measures of success in mind, let’s start over and do the advanced preparation necessary to correctly give constructive feedback. First, dealing with a poor performer is never the opportunity to vent your own frustration. You need to be calm and in control of your emotions.  You must design and execute your plan for the session, not ad lib it.

Constructive Feedback: Timing 

The need to control your anger often conflicts with the need to immediately address the poor performance.  In the situation above, it was lucky Pat had left the office because it allowed the PM time to cool down.  However, letting too much time pass before you deliver constructive feedback is bad because it reduces the impact of what you say.

You could wait two more days until Monday or try to meet with the team member over the weekend.  Your organization’s culture should affect your decision on how reasonable it is to ask for a weekend meeting.  A good middle ground is to send the employee an email today, asking for a meeting first thing Monday morning.

Constructive Feedback: The Medium You Useconstructive feedback

Another consideration is what medium you will use for the constructive feedback discussion.  Ideally, you want a face-to-face meeting, in-person and private, with just the two of you.  In this day of cubicles and virtual teams, private meetings can be a luxury but you should try to make it happen.

Conducting the constructive feedback session in writing via a memo or email is very stiff and legalistic.  Lawyers like performance warnings to be documented.  But written communication can set the wrong tone for building the kind of relationship you want with the team member. A phone call is less formal but the downside is the difficulty in delivering your message with the correct body language and facial expressions. It’s also difficult for you to “read” the team member’s reactions when their words and tone of voice are the only feedback you get over the phone.  A video meeting over the internet improves that situation but you need to ensure that both sides of the conversation are private.

In the example situation with Pat, you might email him and ask for the meeting on Monday. Specify a place and time that will be private.  You might also add that you won’t be available for email discussions this weekend; you want to talk in-person on Monday.  Hopefully, that decreases the odds of an email exchange.

Constructive Feedback: Content and Sequence 

The next element of constructive feedback is planning the information you’ll deliver and the sequence in which you’ll deliver it.  It’s a mistake to assume you know the truth about what really happened, who was accountable and what behavior Pat exhibited.  Starting off with an incorrect version of what happened can bring the constructive process to a halt.

You have only the stakeholder’s view of the situation. You need to start with an open-minded inquiry into Pat’s side of the story.  You don’t want to assume that Pat made the error. There are many other possible explanations for what the stakeholder told you. So the first step in constructive feedback is to tell Pat about the stakeholder’s phone call. Then ask Pat what happened and get his side of the story.

This allows you to avoid accusing Pat of wrong-doing before you know if Pat actually did something wrong. Too many project managers start these sessions with words that assume the guilt of the team member. That makes the PM look judgmental, biased and unfair in the team member’s eyes. PMs often do that when they enter the meeting angry.  You should always start the conversation without prejudgment and let the team member tell their side of the story.

If Pat says, “I put the instructions on the stakeholder’s desk a week ago,” you can say something like, “I didn’t think you’d make that kind of mistake.” Then you can start a discussion about dealing with the one week delay in the implementation.

But if Pat agrees that he didn’t deliver the instructions to the stakeholder, you go on to step two in the constructive feedback process. That is verifying the team member’s accountability for the deliverable’s quality and completeness.

Constructive Feedback: Accountability Verification 

The next step in the constructive feedback information flow is to verify that Pat was responsible for creating and delivering the user instructions.  The purpose of this step is to compare Pat’s actual behavior to what it should have been.  So you ask him who was accountable for giving the instructions to the stakeholder.

If Pat agrees that the instructions were his accountability, you can talk about the importance of closing out tasks completely. And you can discuss the damage that failure to do so caused in this specific situation.  This part of the discussion is focused on Pat’s actual behavior versus his accountability.  Don’t praise other team members who close out tasks completely.  The only reference outside of this current situation might be to mention how well Pat did on the last task he closed out correctly.

Why should you follow all these steps?  If you are going to change the behavior, Pat needs to believe that the criticism was earned and fair and that his behavior was wrong.  That will bring about a change in his behavior and build your working relationship.

Constructive Feedback: Reinforcement 

Dealing with Pat’s performance is not over.  You need to complement Pat when he correctly closes out his next task. That will complete the constructive feedback cycle.

Constructive Feedback: Summary

Constructive feedback on a team member’s poor performance can yield big benefits for the project manager and team member. The project manager must control their anger and the impulse to accuse or punish. Constructive feedback includes learning the facts, verifying the team member’s accountability and reinforcing their improved behavior.

You can practice using these techniques in our private, online courses that include live simulations. You will practice dealing with poor performing team members in private meetings with your instructor who plays the role of the team member. You will learn how to successfully plan and deliver constructive feedback and “think on your feet”during these live online meetings.

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Author: Dick Billows, PMP

Dick has more than 25 years of project and program management experience throughout the US and overseas. Dick was a partner in the 4th largest professional firm and a VP in a Fortune 200 company. He trained and developed 100's of project managers using his methodology. Dick is the author of 14 books, over 300 articles and director/producer of 90 short project management training videos. He and a team of 25 project managers work with client companies & students across the US and in Europe, South America, Asia and the Middle East. They have assisted over 300 organizations in improving their project performance. Books by Dick Billows, PMP are on