The ability to provide effective feedback to employees is a must-have skill in any company. Research published in the Harvard Business Review shows that 72% of employees want corrective feedback to help them improve.

But here’s the key insight from the researchers behind the Harvard-cited study:

“How [delivering the criticism] was done really mattered — 92% of the respondents agreed with the assertion, “Negative feedback, if delivered appropriately, is effective at improving performance.”                                  

—    Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman, Harvard Business Review

In this post, we’ll focus on the researchers’ key qualifier, “if delivered appropriately,” to give you some research-based suggestions that can help your managers turn their employee feedback from potentially harmful to helpful, and even inspirational.

Why Co-Regulation Is the Key to Giving Great Feedback

Delivering constructive criticism to an employee requires a careful balancing act between honesty and empathy. And the stakes for the business are high. Another Gallup study found that 80% of employees whose managers’ feedback left them with negative emotions were looking for a new job.

Even more troubling: Few managers are truly confident in their ability to deliver feedback effectively, as the following stat illustrates.

What is co-regulation, and why is it such a valuable skill?

What’s missing in so many employee-feedback conversations is managers’ ability to co-regulate.

This first step in emotional co-regulation is regulation: identifying and navigating our own emotions. A manager who wants to sit down with an employee and discuss that employee’s performance should first get into an emotional state—ideally pleasant and moderate in energy—that will be conducive to delivering constructive criticism. At face value, feeling something pleasant may seem counterintuitive if you have delivered tough feedback. However, the science of emotions has shown that when we experience lower energy, pleasant emotions like calmness, ease or groundedness, we are more open to information in our environment - including the feelings of the person with whom we are having the conversation.

Then, during the conversation, the manager should express a warm and caring attitude. This will help influence the employee’s own feelings through a process called emotional contagion. If the manager maintains a calm state while giving the feedback, the employee is more likely to also stay calm and absorb the feedback in the spirit in which it was intended: to help the individual improve.

Conversely—and here’s the danger—if the manager delivers the criticism in what the employee perceives as a frustrated or impatient state, the co-regulation dynamic will work against the  goal of the feedback and the employee is more likely to also feel frustrated and become defensive.

Now, let’s return to the research we discussed earlier: For the vast majority of employees (92%), receiving corrective feedback from their managers—“if delivered appropriately”—can actually be a positive experience that helps those employees improve their performance at work.

How to Use Emotional Intelligence to Provide Effective Feedback

Co-regulation is only one component of the broader skill set we describe as emotional intelligence (EI). And when it comes to delivering effective feedback to employees, EI can be your management team’s superpower. Here’s how you can use emotional intelligence to deliver feedback effectively.

Get into the right state before giving feedback.

As we noted above, the first step to successful co-regulation is regulating our own emotions. One way managers can gauge their emotional state is through a quick self-test using our mood meter guide.

Adjust Your Emotions to the Situation

Regulating your emotional state to match the situation can be the key to a successful conversation. If you’re sharing tough feedback with someone who can be defensive, you’ll want to lower your energy to avoid triggering them. On the other hand, when delivering praise, elevate your emotional state to enhance the impact.  

Listen to (and truly hear) the other person.

Emotionally intelligent managers give their employees ample opportunities to speak during these conversations—without challenge or interruption—and listen carefully to what the employees say.

Throughout the conversation, the manager will continually use tone, gestures, and other non-verbal cues to elevate the employee’s mood and energy levels. Even if much of the feedback is critical or corrective, these strategies will likely bring the employee to a more pleasant emotional state than if the manager simply delivered the feedback in a flat or negative way. The goal of this approach is not to create a falsely happy environment, but to maintain an open channel of communication that conveys warmth and support.

Tailor the feedback to the individual.

To give their constructive criticism and suggestions the best chances of hitting home with their employees, emotionally intelligent managers deliver their feedback in ways best suited to the preferred learning modalities of each person.

A data-driven member of the team, for example, will be more receptive to feedback supported by stats and other evidence. A more creative employee, by contrast, might prefer to receive feedback in anecdotal form—and might simply tune out if the manager used a graph or spreadsheet to make the case.

In either case,  before sitting down to deliver feedback to anyone on your team, you’ll want to ask yourself a few quick questions to make sure you’re in a position to make the conversation as positive and productive as possible:

  • Have I regulated my own emotions to ensure I’m in the right place to have this discussion?
  • Do I understand this employee’s unique traits and learning preferences, so I can deliver my feedback in a way that they’ll be receptive to hearing and acting on?
  • Will I be able to offer not only observations and criticism but also practical guidance and steps to help my employee improve and succeed?

Build Your Organization’s Emotional Intelligence Muscles

“Emotionally intelligent managers are invaluable both in terms of how accurately they can predict which employees will be superstars and how effectively they tailor their feedback to help each employee perform at the top of their game.”                              

— Bill Marsh, Owner of Bill Marsh Auto Group and an Oji Life Lab customer  

Given the importance of employee feedback for your company’s bottom line—and the risks of delivering it the wrong way—you need to prioritize your managers’ ability to co-regulate and develop their emotional intelligence in general. The quickest, most cost-effective way is to give your managers access to a convenient, self-paced program for emotional intelligence learning.