How to Give Negative Feedback That Helps Others Improve?
Updated: Dec 12, 2019
You might have never gotten any training on giving feedback or you’ve been exposed to the cheesy feedback sandwich (positive comments followed by negative feedback followed by positive reinforcement) that people know how to quickly eat and ignore.
To make things worse, you may have had bosses who felt that giving feedback was a waste of time. Others, only gave praise to make you feel better (while never promoting you). Or worse, they used feedback to criticize your work in order to assert their superiority.
Forget all of that.
Giving feedback when an employee is underperforming is a source of anxiety for many managers. They fear emotional reactions like anger or sadness or worry about rejection or resentment in the future.
Performance feedback is not about telling people nice things so that they like you (people-pleasers, I am talking to you here!). Nor it should be used as a means of putting employees down.
Good feedback has one key objective: to help the person understand their strengths and weaknesses and take concrete actions to improve.
Before you start discussing a person’s performance set up the feedback conversation.
Preempt it by explaining that you are providing them feedback because you want them to improve and reach their full potential and ask them if they would like your feedback.
Three conditions must be met to make feedback useful:
1. It focuses on the impact of a person’s actions on work outcomes
2. It is supported by concrete examples
3. It is future-oriented
Focus On Actions and Behaviors and Avoid Character Judgements
We all think about issues from our own point of view and system of values.
It’s therefore hard to understand why people think and act differently. So, we judge and discount them instead.
“Jenny is too timid. She is not a leader.”
“Bob is so annoying and difficult to work with.”
These kinds of labels express our emotions about people’s behaviors. It’s very easy to label people negatively when their behaviors don’t match our expectations.
Labels are defeating and not actionable. People don’t have control over your perceptions, but they can change their behaviors.
So instead of using labels or vague statements, focus on how people’s actions affect work outcomes. Reflect on the performance of the person over the course of the year and see if there were any patterns:
“When Jenny doesn’t speak in meetings, we are missing on her ideas and are unsure if she’s going to be on board and execute what is required of the project.”
“When Bob constantly disagrees with every proposal made and doesn’t share information, this creates stress in the team and an environment where people are afraid to come forward with suggestions. Plus, we are unable to make decisions because we are missing his part of the puzzle.”
Provide Concrete Examples
Avoid judgment by focusing on the facts of how their behaviors jeopardize the team’s outcomes:
Jenny: “When we had an important meeting with team xyz, you were an important stakeholder who should have presented and defended idea abc. Instead, you sat quietly the entire meeting, which resulted in team xyz not taking our project seriously. At another instance, you were working on an important part of the project but never discussed your work with other team members so they ended up duplicating the work.”
Bob: “When we were working on project ABC, there were several instances when Mary and Clive asked you for information about such and such aspects, yet you never showed up to meetings and took two weeks to reply to their emails. In another meeting with Clive, you refused to consider any new proposals and continued repeating your own ideas without incorporating any insights from other team members. Both of these situations caused delays in the project.”
Concrete examples help discuss expectations and behaviors and insert more objectivity into your evaluations. If you can’t come up with any concrete examples, you may need to revisit your assessment.
Finally, your recollection and interpretation of events may differ from that of the person you are evaluating and you may not have all the information.
When you share the examples, it’s important to hear their side of the story and evaluate if there were issues with miscommunication or skill gaps so that you can better address them in the future. Let them vent out if needed before you move on to the next steps.
Make It Future-Oriented (What should they do next?)
Once the behaviors are identified and illustrated through examples, your employee knows that he or she is not meeting your expectations but often doesn’t know how to change their approach.
For the feedback to be useful, you need to give them guidance or coaching on how to do things differently in the future.
[Assuming Jenny needs to work on her public speaking] “Jenny, going forward, try to share at least one idea per meeting. If you are afraid to mess up, you can practice your speech with me or another team member. Consider using the company’s or external training resources to work on public speaking.”
[Assuming Bob needs to get better at productively engaging in discussions] “Bob, when you don’t agree with someone’s suggestion, instead of shutting it down immediately or simply ignoring people's requests, focus on asking more clarifying questions to understand their rationale because you may not have all the information. You can also schedule a separate meeting with them to go into more detail if there’s no time to discuss in the bigger meeting."
Oftentimes, people have developed work patterns over time or just have never been exposed to certain situations so it will take some trial and error to develop new approaches.
Assuming that the person you are evaluating is open to feedback and wants to improve, continue to check-in from time to time to validate them when they’ve gotten something right and provide additional feedback when they need to do more work.
Nobody likes to get negative feedback and some people may focus on just the negative and put themselves down. It doesn’t mean that you should be sugarcoating the feedback. This won’t help them grow either. Explain the areas for improvement but also remind them of the things that they ARE good at and the positive contribution they make to the team.
It’s important to note that sometimes people don’t want to evolve or simply are not a good fit for the role they are in. If you’ve given your best efforts and they don’t improve over a reasonable period of time, you need to take action to help them transition out.
It’s not easy to give objective feedback, especially when people underperform. Yet, we tend to underestimate people’s capacity to improve and reach their full potential.
In my experience, giving feedback that is concrete, actionable and future-oriented shows people that you value their efforts and makes a huge difference in their professional trajectory.
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