A Better Way: The Key Components of Constructive Feedback

A Better Way: The Key Components of Constructive Feedback

From the finding more than one-third of feedback interventions actually decrease performance (Kluger & DeNisi, 1996) to Buckingham and Goodall's provocative argument that focusing on people's shortcomings impairs learning (The Feedback Fallacy), it's clear that our current approaches to direct feedback models are falling short.

But critiquing the status quo is only useful if we have a better alternative to offer. That's where the Shift Positive® method comes in. Developed through my work as an executive coach and informed by the latest research in positive psychology and neuroscience, this approach offers a more constructive, growth-oriented way of offering quality feedback.

In this post, I'll break down the three key components of the Shift Positive method and share some practical strategies for putting them into action.

Feedback Strategy #1: Shifting to Strengths

One of the most fundamental shifts we need to make in our approach to feedback is moving from a deficit-based mindset to a strengths-based one. Instead of obsessing over people's weaknesses and gaps, we need to focus on identifying and cultivating their unique strengths (i.e. strengths based feedback).

The research is clear on the power of this approach. In his book StrengthsFinder 2.0, Tom Rath shares a study showing that when managers focus on employees' strengths, the chances of those employees being actively disengaged is just 1%. In contrast, when managers focus on weaknesses, the chances of disengagement skyrocket to 22%.

In the Shift Positive method, we make strengths the foundation of every feedback conversation. We start by asking people to share their own perspective on their strengths, and we actively look for opportunities to acknowledge and affirm the unique value they bring to their work.

Here's what this might sound like in practice. Let's say you're giving feedback to an employee named Allen. Instead of jumping straight to the areas of growth, you might say something like:

"Allen, I really appreciate the way you bring such a strong sense of integrity and dedication to your work. Your attention to detail and responsiveness are incredibly valuable to our team."

Positive feedback differs from negative feedback because it creates a psychologically safe environment for feedback.

Feedback Strategy #2: Embracing a Growth Mindset

Building on this foundation of strengths, the next key component of constructive feedback is promoting a growth mindset. Coined by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, a growth mindset is the belief that our intelligence and abilities are not fixed traits, but rather skills that can be developed through effort and learning.

As Buckingham and Goodall argue, focusing on deficits and weaknesses tends to reinforce a fixed mindset—the belief that we are inherently lacking in some way. In contrast, focusing on growth and improvement cultivates a sense of agency and possibility.

In the Shift Positive® method, we promote a growth mindset by framing feedback in terms of desired behaviors and solutions, rather than dwelling on problems. A simple but powerful tool for making this shift is the T-chart.

By putting problematic behavior on one side and the desired alternative on the other, we can quickly reframe the conversation from what's wrong to what's possible. It may sound easy, however, this simple tool takes effort. We quickly see what we don't' want, but it takes intention to get clarity on what would be better.

Examples of Constructive Feedback for Colleagues

Imagine if you notice that Allen is getting caught up in the small details of his work. He seems to have trouble deciding which tasks are most important. Instead of simply telling him to be more strategic, you can create a T-chart.

This chart will outline the specific behaviors you would like to see from him. This visual aid can help him understand exactly what you are looking for. It may also make it easier for him to make the necessary changes.

Problem-focused:

  • Gets lost in the details
  • Struggles to prioritize
  • Reactive rather than proactive

Solution-focused:

  • Focuses on high-impact work = reviews the OKR's at the start of each weekly staff meeting
  • Regularly assesses priorities = asks each staff person to bring their top three issues (not updates) to their weekly meeting and use a coaching approach with them
  • Anticipates challenges and plans ahead = updates OKR's every Monday

By going deeper until you can see the solution-focused concepts in behavioral detail in your minds-eye, the solution-focused feedback will be much more clear, constructive and forward looking.

Armed with this clarity, you can now have a much more constructive conversation focused on Allen's path to growth:

"Allen, I've noticed that sometimes the day-to-day details can pull you away from our most strategic priorities. I'd love to see you focusing more on the high-impact work that really moves the needle for the organization. I'd love to see you use the OKR's more actively as part of your weekly meetings and in planning for the week ahead. Additionally, help your staff stay focused on the key priorities by asking them to bring their top issues and taking a coaching rather than problem solving approach with them. What do you think?"

By framing the feedback in terms of desired behaviors and enlisting Allen as a partner in finding solutions, you create a sense of collaboration and possibility.

Feedback Strategy #3: Enlisting Allies

This brings us to the next key component of constructive feedback in the Shift Positive® method: enlisting allies. Too often, we think of feedback as a one-way interaction—a manager delivers a message, and the employee is left to interpret and act on it alone.

But research shows that feedback is far more effective when it's treated as an ongoing dialogue and when the receiver has a network of support to help them implement it.

In one study, Goldsmith and Morgan found that the single most important factor in determining whether a leader's development efforts were successful was the extent to which they followed up with their colleagues. Leaders who consistently engaged their stakeholders in discussions about their growth outperformed those who didn't by a significant margin.

In the Shift Positive® method, we build this insight into the feedback process itself. As the feedback giver, your role isn't just to deliver a message—it's to become an ally who can support the receiver's ongoing development.

Here's what this might look like with Allen. After affirming his strengths and clarifying the behaviors you'd like to see more of, you might say:

"Allen, I really want to see you succeed in focusing on our most strategic priorities. I'm committed to being an ally for you in that growth. Here are a few specific things I can do: I can check in with you each week to help you assess which tasks are highest leverage, I can connect you with some colleagues who are really skilled at big-picture thinking and managing the OKR process, and I'm happy to be your strategy partner. What else would be helpful from me or others on the team?"

By becoming an ally and making specific commitments of support, you transform feedback from a one-time event to an ongoing partnership focused on growth.

Putting It All Together

Strengths, growth, allies—these three elements are the core of the Shift Positive® approach to feedback. By starting with people's unique strengths, framing feedback in terms of desired behaviors and solutions, and enlisting a network of support, we create a fundamentally different experience—one that is constructive, action-oriented, and truly developmental.

Of course, implementing these strategies requires a shift not just in our individual feedback practices, but in our organizational cultures more broadly.

I encourage you to start experimenting with these approaches in your own conversations. The next time you need to give feedback, try leading with strengths, using the T-chart to identify desired behaviors, and making a specific offer of support. Pay attention to how it feels for you and the receiver. Notice what new possibilities open up.

Feedback has the potential to be one of our most powerful tools for driving growth and positive change—but only if we're willing to reimagine our approach. By embracing the most recent advances and key components of constructive feedback outlined here, we can tap into that potential and bring out the best in ourselves and others.