The annual performance review is a dreaded obligation for most managers. Not only is there a substantial amount of administrative work, but also the added stress of having to deliver constructive criticism to employees. In fact, a Harris Poll, on behalf of Interact, found that 69 percent of managers feel uncomfortable communicating with employees -- especially when considering the likelihood of a negative response to feedback.

Although managers can delegate a variety of responsibilities, providing feedback is not one of them.

Here are three tips to deliver tough but effective feedback to your employees.

1. Set the stage.

The performance review is a vulnerable time for our employees. Just the mere mention of it can produce involuntary anxiety and put employees on the defensive. The first step is to address the elephant in the room and put your employees at ease by creating a safe environment. Here are a couple ways to establish the right tone:

  • Put the relationship first. Reiterate that the employee is valued, respected, and included in the team's plans moving forward. By providing reassurance, conveying warmth and empathy, we establish a positive mood that inspires employees to let down their guard and be more open to constructive criticism.
  • Establish a growth mindset. In summary, a growth mindset is a belief that intelligence and abilities can be cultivated over time as opposed to the notion that they are predetermined (a fixed mindset). Carol Dweck, Stanford Psychologist, first discovered the significance of a growth mindset when exploring why some students rebounded while others were devastated by failure. In the process, Dweck found that students who believed they could get smarter through dedication and effort were less likely to take setbacks personally. Rather, they embraced them as learning opportunities and became much more resilient. As a manager, reiterate that it's a learning process. We're not trying to "fix" you. We're trying to develop you.
  • Employ real-time feedback. Whether it's formal or informal if you've established an environment where receiving feedback isn't an irregularity, then it will be much easier to broach sensitive topics in the future without alarming employees.

2. Balance the tough with the positive.

Everywhere you look, there's a different suggestion for delivering positive vs. negative feedback (6:1, 3:1, etc.) The main point is to ensure that employees feel valued and appreciated before discussing constructive criticism. However, it's critical that the positive feedback is authentic and deliberate. The problem is that we're too vague when it comes to positive feedback and too detailed when it comes to the negative. When building a positive foundation for constructive criticism, highlight specific accomplishments that demonstrate you're paying attention and truly care about the employee's contributions.

When the right balance is reached, managers generate trust and employees feel empowered -- motivation that will come in handy when pursuing development opportunities.

3. Be thoughtful in the way that you deliver negative feedback.

It's less about what you say, and more about how you say it. Now, I'm not stating that you can't be demanding. There are times when it's vital to the employee's future that we're direct. But, there are ways to say what needs to be said while simultaneously fostering a positive mood:

  • Stick to the facts. It's important when delivery negative feedback to be as objective, fair, and straightforward as possible. Google teaches their managers to use the SBI model to ensure consistency (Situation, Behavior, and Impact.) Following this pattern helps managers describe the situation they want to discuss, the specific behavior in that situation, and the impact that behavior had on the company/team/manager. With a structured approach like this, managers mitigate the feelings of favoritism, bias, or unjust conclusions.
  • Give future focused feedback. Focus on improving future performance as opposed to harping on the past. Discuss what can be worked on to ensure performance improves and how you can be a resource to the employee moving forward. Also, turn advice and criticism into open-ended questions to guide the employee to mutually agreed-upon conclusions -- a surefire way to increase the likelihood of behavioral change.
  • Be engaged. A study by Daniel Goleman and Richard Boyatzis showed that people who received positive feedback accompanied by negative emotional signals reported feeling worse about their performance than those who had received good-natured negative feedback. Show you're engaged by actively listening and practicing positive body language like eye contact and smiling.
  • Be clear about your intentions and make it actionable. It's frustrating to receive ambiguous feedback that we can't do anything about. If you're going to offer constructive criticism, then make sure you clarify your rationale and provide steps to rectify the situation.

Providing negative feedback doesn't mean that the meeting can't be productive. These three tips will ensure employees embrace constructive criticism and make improvements.