Manipulative versus Constructive Feedback. What is the difference?

Leaders are expected to give feedback. It’s part of the responsibility when you’re in a leadership position. Others will be expecting you to inform them of what they’re doing right and what they can improve on.

However giving feedback does not come naturally for many. Some leaders are incapable of giving negative feedback. Either they shy away from being assertive about the news they need to deliver, leaving the recipient oblivious to what they did wrong and the problem unsolved. Or they revert back to childhood tendencies of delivering the negative feedback in a manipulative way, leaving the recipient resentful and bitter.

In either case, the feedback given is not constructive. It is not feedback that is helpful for the individual or the team.

Here is how I distinguish between manipulative and constructive feedback. As a leader, it is critical you understand the difference so you are aware of when you’re approaching the danger zone.

Manipulative Feedback

Manipulative feedback does not have the aim of helping the other person improve. Its sole aim is to trigger in that person a negative emotion such as guilt, resentment, anger or disappointment.

Manipulative Feedback Example: Let’s assume you have a team member who is overly talkative in meetings and does not allow others to contribute their ideas. This person is making the team feel uncomfortable. They are limiting the level of creativity your team can produce (because only one person’s ideas are being heard) and they are damaging your reputation with clients (because the best solution is never found).

A leader giving manipulative feedback would respond to the talkative team member in this way: “You never let anyone speak during our meetings. If you keep this up you’ll lose your job”. This would likely be said as they pass each other in the hallway rather than a sit-down conversation.

This example of feedback is a disguised attack which would only make that team member defensive. In addition it would not help you solve the problem and lead the team to a more productive place.

Constructive Feedback

Constructive feedback should help the recipient improve in some way. Your feedback can help them build on a strength or improve on a weakness. The main goal of constructive feedback is to guide the recipient toward improvement and enhancement of their performance.

Constructive Feedback Example: Continuing on from the situation above, a leader giving constructive feedback would organise a one-on-one with this person and have a real-time conversation with them. Their focus would not be on criticizing their behaviour during meetings (although this would be discussed), it would be on helping them see the impact they are having on others, the team’s performance, and recommending what they can do differently next time.

Image courtesy of StockImages/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of StockImages/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

A leader giving constructive feedback would carry-out a conversation in this way:

Leader: “I’d like to talk to you about today’s meeting. You may not realise this but you have a tendency to talk over others during the meeting. I’ve noticed that this can make the rest of the team uncomfortable and reluctant to give their ideas.” [The impact that person’s behaviour has on other team members].

Chatterbox: “Oh, really? I wasn’t aware that I was talking over other people. I assumed that if they had something to say they would just jump into the conversation”.

Leader: “Well, we’re dealing with different personality types in this team. Some people need more space to talk and to present their ideas. I need the ideas of everybody in the room to ensure that we are seeing the issue from every angle.” [Highlight the importance of getting all perspectives].

Chatterbox: “Ok, I understand”.

Leader: “So what I will do in future meetings is call on each person to present their idea. And when that person is talking, I want you to let them finish presenting their idea before you put forth your comments or questions. It’s really important that this team maintains a high level of creativity for our clients and the only way this will happen is if I get the input from every person in our team. How does this sound to you? [Suggest what they can do differently next time and why it’s important]

Constructive feedback has an improvement goal in mind so guidance and providing next steps are paramount.

I recently talked about feedback to a group of professionals in a leadership communication workshop I was conducting. When I distinguished between constructive and manipulative feedback, it was immediately apparent they had been guilty of using manipulative feedback themselves or they know somebody who does.

What style of feedback do you give your team? Is the focus of your feedback to improve or to attack? Remember, negative feedback is never pleasant to give. But if your intentions are positive and they are to improve the performance of your team, it will come across as constructive, not manipulative.

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About Kara

Kara Ronin is the founder of Executive Impressions. She is an executive coach who specialises in leadership presence, social skills and business etiquette. She is also the creator of Bestselling Udemy course, Business Etiquette 101. Kara’s advice and unique perspectives have been featured in Time Inc., Business Insider, Ignites Europe (a Financial Times Service), The Muse, The Local France, The West Australian, and more. Kara works regularly with lawyers, investment bankers, and finance professionals to help them build presence, authority and influence in business. Get Kara's insights delivered straight to your inbox