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How to Deliver Constructive Feedback

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The best ways to communicate with employees to inspire their improvement.

Typically, there are three main elements to a person’s message: their words, their voice, and their non-verbal cues.  

That’s the sentiment of Patrick Donadio, a professional speaker, trainer, and the author of Communicating with IMPACT. Donadio occasionally speaks at collision repair industry events, where it’s not unusual to find shop owners who struggle to communicate effectively with employees.

In stressful environments like body shops, it’s important for those in leadership positions to take a deep breath before offering feedback, or criticism, to employees, he says.

“Watch your tone,” Donadio says. Instead of saying “‘I’m very upset,’ say, ‘Hey, I’d like to learn a little bit more about what happened.’

“Focus on the situation or the issue, not the person. If you focus on the person, it’s going to come off as harsh.”

Felicia Weisberg, a manager at Mike’s Auto Body locations in both Brooksville, Fla., and Spring Hill, Fla., concurs. When she’s assisting estimators, technicians, or front office employees at her high-volume workplaces, Weisberg tries to always keep emotions out of the equation.

“I say, ‘Look, we need to [fix] this job; this is what happened, and this is what needs to be happening,” she says. “I try to be very black and white with it, so there’s no confusion. I try not to approach [employees] in an angry way, but more just giving advice.”

Below, Donadio and Weisberg offer several suggestions for how shop operators can effectively deliver constructive feedback to employees.

Praise in public, criticize in private.

If a shop leader wants to communicate with employees effectively—in an effort to get them to improve—it usually works best to meet with the staffer one-on-one, in private and, ideally, in a warm, non-threatening environment. It’s one of Donadio’s top rules with regard to workplace communication.

“I always find it helpful, when you’re going to give particularly negative feedback or criticism, to try and do it in a way that’s not going to embarrass people in front of somebody else,” notes Donadio, who occasionally speaks at events such as the Automotive Service Association’s annual conference. 

Consider personality styles.

No two employees will share the exact same personality. And that’s important to keep in mind when offering feedback to your staff, Donadio notes. Some employees will be hyper-analytical, some tend to be impatient, some will be outgoing, and others will internalize their emotions. Shop owners can pick up on how they need to approach employees by observing how those staff members interact with their coworkers on a daily basis.

Then, shop leaders need to react accordingly.

“If you’re talking to, for example, an extrovert versus an introvert,” Donadio says,

“think about how you [need to] adjust your communication. You know, extroverts are more open to a lot of emotion; introverts might not be. Introverts think before they speak, are slow acting, show less emotion. We’re not all the same.”

Be direct.

Weisberg, who helps oversee 20 Mike’s Auto Body employees, aims to work as efficiently as possible each day. As a result, if a longtime technician questions her suggestion on the workfloor, she’s always ready to show them OEM repair procedure printouts, in an effort to support her argument.  

And, when she needs to offer instruction to young, fledgling employees, Weisberg doesn’t mince words. She’s specific, brief, and to the point.

“When it comes to younger employees,” she says, “you almost have to be a little harsh with them, and abrupt, because, if not, they like to say, ‘Oh, she said this, but she could have meant it this way. And it’s like, ‘No, this is what we mean, this is how we have to do it, and there’s no woulda, coulda, shoulda.’”

Consider multiple solutions.

In order to keep emotions from escalating during workplace conversations, Donadio suggests putting employees in “solution mode.” In his experience, workers will often come up with a surprising amount of solutions if they’re respectfully asked to provide their opinions.

For example, if a shop owner wants to go over an estimate that an employee wrote, he or she could say, “What are some things you think we could do differently in the future to help you get more accurate?”

“Put [employees] in the driver’s seat,” Donadio says. “Let them come up with it. … Present your case [and] ask ‘how’ questions to draw out opinions.”

Try written agreements.

Weisberg tries to be patient with every employee—but not at the expense of her workplace’s bottom line. So, if a staffer persistently makes mistakes, she’ll eventually have them provide written proof that the matter was discussed on multiple occasions.

“If this is something that I’ve talked to the employee two or three times about, then what I like to do is follow it up with a writeout of exactly what we spoke about,” Weisberg explains. “And then have both of us sign it. It’s something they can keep, to reference back to.”  

Consider seeking assistance.

Before a problem persists at length, Weisberg suggests bringing it to the attention of an employee’s direct supervisor, so the supervisor can get to the bottom of the issue. If that doesn’t solve the issue, then the shop owner can be called in, as a last resort.

“When the owner gets involved, that [makes employees think] ‘Wow, this is kind of intense,’” Weisberg notes.

“Normally I try to stick to the next chain of command, and only bring the owners into it if it’s a situation that’s kind of gotten out of control.”

Pause and listen.

When it comes to offering criticism to employees, it never hurts to take a deep breath, gather your thoughts, and listen.

“A good leader,” Weisberg says, “puts themselves in others’ shoes when assessing a situation. So … take a breath and lower your anger level before addressing the issue.”

Donadio suggests taking a moment to gauge how upset an employee might be before confronting them with any feedback or criticism.

“You have to listen with your eyes and ears,” he suggests. “Listen to what people are sharing. Because it might be that, the reason that there’s an issue is not because of a particular person, but it might be a systemic thing. … So don’t just jump in and say, ‘You need to do this, and you need to stop doing this.’ Make sure you build in the opportunity for people to give you some insight.

“When you’re going to give feedback, allow it to be a dialogue, not a monologue.”

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