How to give constructive feedback over email? If someone is in front of you much of the nuance can be picked up in facial expressions and body language. But not when someone is remote. How do you prevent the email from sounding too critical or harsh?
Giving feedback over email can be very time consuming, and it is something I recommend against. The reasons why it is time consuming is because you need to craft an email very carefully, and that can take hours. But, being that we have shifted most of our communication online, it is best to give permission to the team member to self-assess their work prior to feedback.
Leaders are teachers, and feedback is vital to any learning process. In the education world, we refer to it as assessment for learning and assessment as learning. The workplace mainly focuses on assessment of learning; feedback most often arrives to the team as performance evaluations, when a project is completed. Although a project includes multiple regroupings along the way, feedback is not always infused in interval check-in points that can change the direction of the work or improve the process. This is sometimes a result of short timelines.
Feedback can be brief, but needs to be mindful and intermittent. Leadership plays the role of modeling how the feedback process works.
In order for feedback to be constructive, but not hurtful, leaders need to communicate their vision, enlist the right people, assign clear roles and clear division of labor, and then outline check-in dates for feedback. This must become part of the organizational culture. The best way to initiate this discussion is to ask team members to self-assess their own work, list what has been successful, what needs improvement, and who is the best person to help them through, etc. Coaching team members through self-assessment, allows leaders to add feedback to what individuals already recognize for themselves and the learning process.
In order for team members to feel like they are part of the feedback process, leaders can prepare them with these questions, at multiple stages of the process, not the end:
How has the overall experience / process been so far?
At which points did we feel the most successful?
At which points did we feel like we needed the most support?
What changes would we suggest at this point?
What support do we need to make these changes?
It is within this framework that leaders can incorporate their feedback, and they can do this over email quite often. I recommend that leaders create a culture of doing this, as to relieve the stress of the feedback process. This also makes leaders open to receiving feedback. At this point, a leader’s feedback is part of a conversation of which the team member is actually part of, rather than at the receiving end of their comments.
Craft an email knowing that it will go back and forth a few times. Feedback is a loop — a learning experience that needs to be treated as a discussion, even over email. After sending the initial email with the questions above, reply by adding to those points that have already been made. Say things like this:
I understand, I hope this helps, I can see some truth in what you’re saying, how can we support you further? What do you suggest? Can I also suggest something that can help us move forward with that? I hear and I understand where you are coming from. This made me think about…, etc.
Be mindful of the language. Some of our email communication has become habitual and we can begin to change these habits. The following are some suggestions:
Replace: Hey, with, Hello Team!
Replace: I, me, mine, my (as much as possible), with, we, ours, and us.
Replace: should, with, I invite you to.
Replace: as per our conversation / my last email, with, reflecting back on our discussion.
Replace: Let me know if you have any questions / don’t hesitate to contact me, with, please let me know your thoughts, or, I am open to feedback, or, let’s set up a good time to discuss this further, or, I am available to discuss your concerns and answer your questions.
Do not underline, highlight, bold words, nor use caps. Do not reiterate what was said in previous conversations, or repeat things that were in previous emails. If we need to do that, it’s best to set up a call, otherwise, it could sound condescending. If leaders find that they are going down that rabbit hole, then, obviously, this is something that will be handled more efficiently by talking to the team member. End the email chain with how to move forward, resolutions, and what the vision and objective is; we are a team.
Check out the "10 Unprofessional Email Phrases That Are Ruining Your Reputation at Work" at Fairy God Boss for more email direction.