The best way to give feedback, especially constructive criticism, is face-to-face. However, in a remote team, that’s not always an option. A large part of adjusting to remote work is learning how to give feedback via other channels.

Whether you’re sending a DM, writing an email, commenting on a document, drafting a performance evaluation, or something else, giving clear but non-threatening feedback is the key to helping your team progress. In writing, you have to rely on your words alone to make sure your message comes across as intended. Careful phrasing and word choice are important, and even with the best of intentions a message may be misread.

For example, research has documented a “negativity bias” around emails. That is, if someone writing an email thinks it sounds positive, the person reading it will probably read it as neutral. If the sender thinks it sounds neutral, the recipient will likely read it as negative.

So what can you do to avoid that pitfall? Here are some tips on how to give written feedback that’s considerate and constructive:

Avoid imperatives

The person you’re talking to is likely to respond better when you share information, rather than telling them what to do. “Check that the numbers are correct next time” can sound friendly if the speaker has the benefit of voice and gestures to back it up. But in text it can sound blunt, even demanding. Simply phrasing your feedback as a statement or a question rather than instructions can go a long way toward keeping the tone pleasant.

Let’s see some examples:

  • Harsh command: “Check that the numbers are correct next time.”
  • Neutral statement: “Some of these numbers don’t match the most recent report.”
  • Gentle question: “Can you check these numbers against the most recent report?”

Not every situation calls for gentleness, but it’s good to have that option in your feedback toolbox. Without the benefit of in-person interaction, curt commands can do a lot of damage to morale.

Talk about specific actions and outcomes

Frame your statements to be focused on actions and outcomes, rather than characteristics of the person or their work. Cause and effect statements can help the conversation feel more positive and stay productive. You and the person you’re working with both want the best outcome, so making your advice explicitly point to that outcome sets a cooperative tone for the conversation.

Here are a few examples that showcase what we mean:

  • Accusatory statement: “You’ve been slow to turn in reports.”
  • Effect-oriented explanation: “Turning in reports on time will help the team keep up with our deadlines.”
  • Solution-oriented question: “What’s getting in the way of you completing your reports on time? Maybe we can streamline things.”

To make your feedback as useful as possible, be specific. Vague or overly general criticism can be frustrating, since it requires guesswork. To keep the conversation helpful, note specific areas for improvement and offer practical ways to improve them. Whenever you present a problem, suggest a solution.

Example: “Shortening the introduction in this presentation will help you hold the audience’s attention. The part about the last release is the best part to cut, since it will already be covered in the presentation before yours.”

Use compliments to set a positive tone

When you start a written conversation, the first sentence sets the tone and primes the other person’s expectations. Starting with positivity and appreciation can help the recipient not feel too threatened or undermined by any negative feedback that follows.

After you’ve given your input, it can be equally helpful to close your comments with more positivity. After all, one of the most important aspects of your message is how recipient feels at the end of it. The last line doesn’t have to be a direct compliment, but should be something positive, like an optimistic perspective on the team’s goals and progress.

There are other benefits to incorporating positive feedback. It helps maintain good working relationships and motivates employees to improve. One study by Francesca Gino from Harvard Business School and Adam Grant from Wharton found that call bank personnel for fundraisers at a university made over 50% more calls in a week after their manager expressed appreciation for their work.

Focus on the future

To maintain tone and communicate a feeling of optimism, aim for feedback that looks forward. Feedback that’s framed around potential, improvement, and progress can make a more positive impression than feedback that only talks about past and current performance.

The simplest way to make room for potential in your feedback is to incorporate “yet”. There’s a big difference between “This project isn’t where we want it to be,” and “This project isn’t where we want it to be yet.”

In looking forward, give feedback that aims at moving the person’s work closer to the goals for that project. Keep in mind the SMART goals format: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-based. This will make your feedback as specific and helpful as possible. It also allows the person receiving the advice to see the reasoning behind it. Once they understand the reasoning behind what you’re asking them to do, that opens the door for questions further brainstorming. Misunderstandings about feedback often center around the goals of the work itself, so explaining those goals is a good way to start a productive conversation about how to improve.

Mind the medium

Different ways of holding a written conversation come with different expectations. In less formal channels like SMS and chat, you should probably mind your punctuation…but not in the way you might expect. A 2016 study from Binghamton University found that text messages ending with periods were perceived as less sincere than ones without ending punctuation. Adding a period at the end of a text is also often perceived as angry. In other words, relaxing your grammar slightly might help your message come across as it’s meant to.

Emoji are also a hot topic in chat and email etiquette. Perception of emojis has changed rapidly, from emoji users being seen as less competent in 2017, to survey respondents in 2019 saying they think emojis lighten the mood and show support. The rise of internal messaging apps, like Cliq and Slack, has helped normalize emoji usage in professional environments. Although using emojis in workplace communication is widely accepted, you’ll still want to be careful and aware of different possible interpretations.

The good news: the most commonly used emojis tend to stay pretty consistent year to year, so those are well recognized and generally unambiguous. They tend to be smileys, hand gestures, and simple symbols, with tears of joy, thumbs up, and a smile regularly appearing in the top 10. Adding an emoji or two can help indicate the sentiment behind a message.

Edit

The main advantage of written, remote feedback is that you can change it before you send it off. Give yourself time to go through a few versions of what you want to say. For more important feedback, try creating two drafts:

  1. One to make your point
  2. One to make an impression.

Write out everything you want to say first. Take this chance to organize your thoughts and make sure you’re laying out ideas in an order that makes sense. If you find yourself making broad statements, then zero in on what’s relevant. Make those points as specific and actionable as you can.

After you have your ideas laid out, take your eyes off it for a while. One major pitfall of written communication is that when we write, we subconsciously associate the way we feel with what we write. Then, we assume our mood will come across clearly. In order to see your message the way the recipient will see it, you need to get out of the state of mind you were in when you wrote it in the first place. Refill your coffee, stretch your legs, or check your email, and look back at what you’ve written after a break.

Your second draft is your chance to focus on the tone and emotional impression your writing has. Look for places where misunderstandings may arise, and clarify what you mean. Pay close attention to word choice and phrasing. This is a great time to try reading it out loud. Tone often comes across very differently when spoken, so reading it out loud can help you hear your words clearly. Keep the “negativity bias” in mind. If you think something might sound too harsh, it’s a good idea to change it just in case.

Find the balance that works for you and your team

Not every piece of feedback needs to employ each of these techniques. If you’re in a position to be giving feedback, do your best to communicate clearly and carefully, but don’t worry too much about causing offense. It’s just as much the other person’s responsibility to take your feedback in stride and try not to get too defensive or crestfallen. Just remember: remote feedback is always going to be more fraught than feedback that can be delivered with a smile. Learning how to modulate your tone is a crucial skill when running a happy, productive remote team.

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