How to give constructive feedback when working remotely

Vladimir Samolovac

Last updated on: January 20, 2022

If constructive feedback is the lifeblood of a healthy remote team, the unfortunate reality is that many remote teams are anemic.

For reasons that we’ll overview later, remote team leaders and managers are reluctant to offer any types of feedback, let alone constructive ones.

In this blog post, we’ll outline what exactly makes feedback constructive, why constructive feedback is important in remote teams, and what some of the reasons behind its absence are. To help ensure your team gets all the benefits of constructive feedback, we’ll then provide 8 practices that will help you provide it in the best and most effective way.

What is constructive feedback?

You’re late, again!” says the project manager to an employee for whom the term punctuality seems to not carry any weight. This is feedback; there are no two ways about it. But it’s not constructive feedback. 

What’s needed to make feedback constructive is a singular purpose aimed at supporting the employee. Identifying their weaknesses is only step one. The “You’re late, again!” mentioned above is a prime example of feedback that doesn’t move past step one. Over the course of this blog post, we’ll elaborate on how engaging in dialogue to get to the source of the issue and create an actionable plan for improvement will ensure the employee gets all the following benefits of constructive feedback. 

By the time we reach the conclusion, your feedback of this kind will hopefully look more like this:

I have noticed that you arrived late to work three times this week. When you arrive late, it demotivates the rest of the team who share your burden. How do you think we can address this issue in the future?”

Constructive feedback - cover-min

Why is constructive feedback important for remote teams?

Constructive feedback is just as important for remote teams as it is for non-remote teams. That being said, talking about constructive feedback — specifically, in relation to remote teams — is still a worthwhile endeavor. This is simply because there are huge discrepancies in the consistency with which feedback is handed out in remote environments. To put it plainly, constructive feedback is harder to come by for remote employees — which in turn means they enjoy the following benefits of constructive feedback more sporadically (if ever):

Constructive feedback brings professional growth

Both athletes and employees require coaching to reach peak performance. In the workplace, this coaching often takes the form of feedback. By failing to provide constructive feedback, you can stunt the professional development of your employees.

Constructive feedback improves performance

Regardless of whether you look at performance on the level of a single employee or the company as a whole, constructive feedback is the key to improvement. Employee performance will improve on account of their professional growth, whereas overall company performance can be improved by using feedback channels to gather effective organizational feedback from employees.

Constructive feedback manages expectations

Without direct contact, it can be hard for remote employees to figure out exactly what’s asked of them and in what capacity. By providing regular constructive feedback, you’re erecting clear signposts that signal expectations — signposts that help you guide remote employees in the right direction in their work.

Constructive feedback builds rapport

Engaging employees with constructive feedback is its own form of team-building, as it helps build rapport between remote employees. With how difficult it can be for remote teams to build rapport without premeditated effort, every opportunity to do so should be seized.

Why is giving constructive feedback harder remotely

According to a Harvard Business Report study, 57% of employees would choose constructive feedback over praise if given the option. The main issue found in this study is that leaders would prefer not to give feedback at all, either positive or negative. 

This study was conducted in 2014, so it may not directly pertain to remote work. However, given that we know leaders find it harder to give critical feedback remotely, it’s reasonable to assume that remote employees receive less feedback than their in-office counterparts.

The reasons why leaders shy away from their duty to coach remote employees are also known. For many, the lack of physical interaction poses an insurmountable barrier — they simply don’t know how to approach the issue remotely. Since very few leaders have had training for managing remote teams, they try several things and hope something will stick. Many leaders shy away from providing feedback as a direct consequence of their previous attempts not being taken well.

In addition to this, one of the leading factors behind leaders’ reluctance to provide feedback remotely is the fear of negativity bias, which is more pronounced in remote work environments. Leaders fear their feedback, despite the well-meaning intentions behind it, may be soul-crushing and thereby lead to counter-productive ends.

Practices to follow to give constructive feedback when working remotely

Despite the previously mentioned issues that prevent leaders from embracing their coaching responsibilities, it bears noting that constructive feedback is mandatory for effective growth. A remote team cannot maintain a healthy workflow without it. So, to help you deliver feedback most effectively, we present you with these 8 practices. 

Establish trust

We’ve mentioned the fear of negativity bias — our brain’s pre-wired penchant to dwell on negatives more so than positives — as one of the reasons that make leaders reluctant to offer critical feedback to their remote employees. 

But there are ways you can prevent (or at least minimize) the domino effects of this bias from spiraling out of control. For example, it’s not unreasonable for a remote employee for whom things have not been looking up in their personal life to go into tunnel vision mode as soon as a manager mentions something negative about their performance. These thoughts then play out until they reach their logical conclusion, which can include “How long until I’m laid off,” or “Do I even have what it takes to do this job?

Part of the issue here is the lack of trust between the manager and the employee. We are more open to feedback from sources we trust. Effective feedback builds trust on its own, but in a remote environment, sometimes you need to kickstart the process. 

For example, getting feedback from Jana — who bunked with you when the company organized a mountainside retreat or almost fell into the water when the team went rafting — is sure to go by better than getting feedback from Jana — the team leader who you’ve never met and can’t get a read on (and who probably doesn’t like you, according to your negative hunch).

Therefore, investing time in team-building exercises to nourish the bonds between remote employees and their remote managers is one way to help smooth out the process of giving constructive feedback within a remote team. 

Example of a remote-friendly team-building exercise on Pumble
Example of a remote-friendly team-building exercise on Pumble

Schedule feedback consistently

A common trap managers who seek to get in the habit of providing consistent feedback fall into is providing feedback that’s either disruptive, not constructive — or both.

Disruptive feedback takes the form of unannounced feedback. Remember — for all the benefits of feedback, it’s still not a process employees enjoy. For this reason, it’s better to schedule feedback ahead of time. Let the employees prepare mentally for what’s about to come (even though it’s likely not all that scary). Otherwise, even if the feedback you provide is constructive and well-received, it will invariably disrupt their workflow. 

Studies show that it takes employees approximately 23 minutes to refocus after suffering through distractions. Should the feedback be received negatively, the consequences are likely to be even more impactful.

As for non-constructive feedback, this generally occurs when managers feel that anything is better than nothing. In extreme cases, this can lead to micromanaging, which is known to stifle creativity and even increase the rate of employee turnover.

To reiterate, feedback should be an ongoing process, not a once in a blue moon event. But, to get the desired results, transparent scheduling is paramount. Obviously, you should address issues as they arise by scheduling emergency meetings with a day or two of prior notice — but otherwise, try to keep things consistent.

Example of proper scheduling arrangements via Pumble
Example of proper scheduling arrangements via Pumble

Build on the positives

If you’re finding it hard to deliver feedback in a non-discouraging way, might we suggest starting with the positives and building on them?

This may sound like the famous feedback sandwich, where you stuff the critical feedback between two slices of positive feedback, but that’s not it. While feedback sandwiches can be useful, they quickly lose their impact. Use the feedback sandwich once or twice on the same employee — and the third time they hear positive feedback, all they’ll be thinking about is what they’ve messed up.

Building on the positives means having a strategy where you connect the critical feedback with the positive feedback and elaborate on how improving with regard to the former will also positively affect the latter. 

For example, let’s say there’s an employee — we’ll call him John — who’s excellent at his job, but not the best when it comes to team communication. You could approach giving him feedback like this:

I am consistently impressed by how quickly you’re able to fix bugs without any drop in quality. But, when you don’t coordinate your efforts with the rest of the team, much of your effort gets wasted. How do you think we can find a strategy that will help you communicate the pace of your work with the rest of the team so that none of our efforts go to waste?” 

This lets you frame the entire conversation in a positive light and communicates your well-meaning intentions along with the need for change in behavior.

Also, keep in mind that this isn’t mandatory. Not all employees take feedback the same way. Some of them want you to shoot straight, like ripping off a bandaid. Some require this additional effort. Always tailor your feedback strategy to the individual.

Be honest

If you’ve decided to utilize the previous tip, always keep this mantra in mind — honesty is the best policy.

Without honesty, neither the feedback sandwich nor the building on positives approach will do you much good. Leaders who are too fearful of upsetting their employees can quickly fall into the trap of overplaying the positives and barely touching on the negatives. 

Over exaggerations, euphemisms, sugar coating, and beating around the bush don’t benefit anyone.

So long as your feedback is honest and your good intentions are transparently signaled, there’s not a lot more you can do to soften the blow without trespassing into the territory of counterproductive results. And that’s exactly what dishonesty is — counterproductive to constructive feedback.

Use video calls

Removing non-verbal cues from communication can have devastating effects on the reception of feedback. Non-verbal cues like facial expressions, posture, eye contact, tone of voice, and gestures all help us zero in on the intended meaning. Effective communication is all about mutual understanding, and non-verbal cues help us both convey meaning and understand it more clearly. 

To make matters worse, even if you omit certain elements of speech — like the tone of voice — the message recipient will still interpret them based on their own metrics. If it happens often with casual texting with friends, what’s to stop this from happening while providing purely written feedback. And with negativity bias looming over the heads of many remote workers, the chances of inferring the wrong tone skyrocket.

All of this can easily be avoided through reliance on video calls. While they are unable to convey the full breadth of non-verbal cues, video calls still help us regain some semblance of control over how our feedback will be interpreted. Video also lets you monitor the emotional state of employees on the receiving end of feedback. 

On the other hand, positive feedback (i.e. praise) can be communicated via text messages. For example, remote teams can and should utilize Pumble, or similar team messaging tools, to celebrate success and acknowledge a job well done — as shown in the image below.. To maximize your chances of success, you should also be assertive in remote communication.

Example of manager giving positive feedback via Pumble
Example of a manager giving positive feedback via Pumble

Provide relevant context

Let us set the scene: You’re watching a romcom where the main romantic relationship is budding brilliantly. But then, a serious case of contrived misunderstanding threatens to tear the characters apart. 

Nobody likes this — it’s lazy writing. 

You as the audience know how both parties think and feel, and you’re frustrated that they can’t just communicate already. 

In art, this is called dramatic irony — the audience knows something the characters don’t. 

In real life, we’re not the audience — we don’t know what the employee is thinking and they don’t know what we’re thinking. 

Now, how does this relate to feedback?

Well, if you’re not upfront about the context surrounding the feedback, you’re inviting misunderstanding. Implicit understanding should never be assumed. So, be clear about why you want to provide feedback — otherwise, for all you know, the employee may think they’re being called for an entirely different reason. 

For example, if there’s an employee who keeps interrupting others during conference calls, don’t ask them “What’s your problem?,” or “Why have you always got to jump into other people’s sentences?” 

Instead, be specific: “I noticed that you kept interrupting Lisa (Behavior) during her presentation yesterday (Situation).” This way, instead of inviting vague or defensive answers, like “What problem?,” or “I don’t always interrupt,” you establish a precise context.

In the SBI (Situation, Behavior, Impact) model of feedback, this would constitute the Situation and the Behavior. 

If you choose to follow this model, you should then explain what Impact this had on you: “It felt frustrating being repeatedly pulled out of Lisa’s presentation (Impact).” Finally, when Situation, Behaviour, and Impact are all irrefutably established, ask them what their intentions were. “What were you hoping to accomplish with this?” 

This is a tough conversation that no manager looks forward to. But, if you fail to provide such precise and relevant context behind negative behavior, you’re less likely to get to the bottom of the issue.

Don’t talk at employees

One way to turn a feedback session from something potentially unpleasant into something truly dreadful is by turning it into a monologue.

Always remember that feedback is a form of two-way communication — a dialogue, if you will. Both parties need to be involved.

Following the SBI feedback model outlined above, is one way to constructively include the employee into the dialogue, but don’t cut their participation short there. The best way to facilitate two-way communication while giving remote feedback is by sharing the responsibility for finding the solution.

Ask the employee whether they have any ideas for how to resolve the relevant issues. They’re capable people, that’s why they were hired. 

Additionally, don’t assume to know what the reasons for their behavior are. 

If someone keeps cutting in during conference calls, perhaps they aren’t just rude, like you’re imagining. Perhaps they simply have a laggy Internet connection. Rather than lead us towards a solution, such assumptions only make us part of the problem.

What you should do is work with the employee to uncover the root cause of the issue — and find ways to solve it, together.

Example of proper two-way communication on Pumble
Example of proper two-way communication on Pumble

Give actionable feedback

The “You’re late, again!” feedback example given at the beginning of this article is grossly mishandled in many ways — but what it lacks most explicitly is actionability. 

How does this remark help address the issue? The answer is it doesn’t.

In their paper, Mark D. Cannon and Robert Witherspoon describe actionable feedback as “feedback that leads to learning and appropriate results”. Standing in the way of actionable feedback are cognitive and emotional dynamics of both the feedback provider and feedback receiver. In addition to this, it bears noting that communication of any kind consists of at least 8 main components — that’s 8 steps, each capable of distorting the original intent. 

To keep your feedback actionable, it helps to create a plan of action by asking yourself the following questions:

  • “How and when have I observed unwanted behavior?”
  • “What examples can help to clearly communicate my observations?”
  • “What consequences do I see this type of behavior leading to?”
  • “How can I approach the problem in a way that will help the employee?”
  • “How do my emotions influence the overall equation?”

Once you can find the answers to these 5 questions, you’ll be ready to provide feedback that’s truly constructive and actionable. 

The only potential remaining issue then is the poor reception of said feedback. This often manifests through defensiveness.

One way to avoid provoking defensiveness while providing feedback is by starting sentences with the first-person singular. 

Instead of “You did this poorly,” say “I feel you could have done better,” — or (in case this feels like sugar coating) “I feel this isn’t up to par.” 

The idea is to aim your criticism at the employee’s behavior, rather than at the employee. This will directly increase the chances of your actionable feedback actually leading to learning and appropriate results.

Conclusion: The lack of constructive feedback dooms remote teams to mediocrity

If there’s only one takeaway you’ll remember from this article it should be this: Feedback, unless constructive, is often no better than no feedback at all.

This is because, much like how children learn to shy away from hot stoves once they’ve been burned, remote leaders learn to shy away from any and all feedback once a few of their mishandled attempts all result in failure. 

Providing constructive feedback by following the practices outlined in this article will minimize the chances of burning oneself while maximizing the chances of success.

Vladimir Samolovac is an experienced remote work writer who specializes in topics of communication and collaboration. He enjoys helping others overcome communication hurdles and improve their work-life balance. As an avid connoisseur of productivity, he closely follows the latest research and findings pertaining to team collaboration in search of techniques that could expand his knowledge.

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