Negative feedback can be hard to handle and, when poorly delivered, unhelpful.
While we have all been on the receiving end of criticism – that uncomfortable conversation often toned down by pleasantries – it is neither easy to give nor take.
And yet, if appropriate, timely, and well wrapped, feedback can be a positive and even life-enhancing experience. Indeed, a Gallup poll identified that employees want any feedback over no feedback – even if it’s negative (Brim & Asplund, 2009).
This article digs deeper into the subtle art of giving feedback while offering techniques to reduce the associated discomfort.
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This Article Contains:
- Giving Negative Feedback Positively: 11 Techniques
- Critical Versus Constructive Feedback
- 8 Real-Life Examples
- Useful Feedback in the Workplace Videos
- Tips for Giving Negative Feedback at Work
- Can There Be Too Much Feedback? – Possibly
- PositivePsychology.com Helpful Resources
- A Take-Home Message
Giving Negative Feedback Positively: 11 Techniques
How do we know if we are doing the right thing? And equally, how do we know we are doing it well?
Without feedback, we are cut off. We behave in a way that we think is right while remaining ignorant and in the dark.
Positive feedback, rather than telling us where we are going wrong, helps us enhance our best qualities. It tells us to keep going as we are – and perhaps more so.
While negative feedback might suggest a focus on our worst, it creates an immense opportunity for improvement when viewed in the right light. After all, an insightful critique provides a chance to grow and excel (Chappelow & McCauley, 2019).
Chappelow and McCauley write in the Harvard Business Review:
“feedback – both positive and negative – is essential to helping managers enhance their best qualities and address their worst so they can excel at leading.”
And it’s not just for managers, it’s true of all of us.
What should we consider when it comes to feedback?
There are several points to think about before we tell someone what we think:
- Harsh feedback may be counterproductive.
Deliver feedback carefully and respectfully. If given too frequently and without regard to feeling, the person on the other end will revert to defense mode – possibly losing confidence, self-esteem, and motivation.
- Feedback isn’t always negative.
Don’t persistently focus on what isn’t working or isn’t being done right. Attending to what is going well can support someone’s growth and steer their development in the right direction.
- Feedback isn’t always positive.
On the other hand, don’t always focus on strengths. If you only address the positives, the listener will return to what they were doing, believing they have nothing to improve. Nevertheless, they will be delighted as they appear to be doing almost everything right. The balance between points two and three is essential.
- Providing a fix may not be the answer.
Ask questions that encourage reflection. Such open support can lead the person to understand what they did well, or poorly, while stimulating exploration and reflection.
How can negative feedback be given positively?
Ashira Prossack, writing for Forbes (2018), says, “feedback is a manager’s best tool, but it’s only effective when it’s delivered properly.”
It’s tricky. But when done well, the client or employee can even be grateful.
After all, it may not be a surprise to the recipient, and bringing difficulties out into the open can create a productive dialogue. Negative feedback given positively can be enabling, helping someone stop making mistakes and providing them with the training and support needed.
But, if handled clumsily, without respect, courtesy, and consideration of the end goal, it will either be ignored or lead to withdrawal – mental, emotional, or even physical.
Prossack suggests the following guidance:
- Avoid wrapping negative feedback in praise
The feedback sandwich (there are more colloquial names for it), while popular, may not always be appropriate.
The standard compliment/critique/compliment can give a false view of how someone is performing. Two positives outweigh one negative and, therefore, might suggest successful performance.
- Constructive criticism
Identifying the problem then coming up with a plan to fix it is a powerful development tool.
Help the person find ways to avoid making the same mistake while learning a new behavior or better approaches.
- Regular follow-up
It’s not enough to say there is an issue and then leave it.
Create a development plan with regular meet-ups. Provide guidance and ask the person to confirm the steps they have implemented, the training they have taken, and whether the outcome has improved. This will also help build trust and a stronger relationship for future feedback.
- Be honest and sincere
We are often aware of our underperformance, so the feedback should not be a surprise. Make it clear you are keen to help the person improve, rather than find fault.
- Be direct and clear
At the end of the feedback, don’t let the person walk out of the room thinking ‘what just happened?’ State the feedback clearly and directly, without being rude or uncaring. If necessary, send an email as a follow-up to clarify the points discussed.
- Encourage self-reflection
Engage with the person; ask for their thoughts on what happened and why. It could be that their actions were justified and that your picture of what happened is incomplete.
- Stop and listen
You may be as nervous as the person you are giving feedback to, and that may cause you to talk too much. Stop and listen.
Taking time to understand their position will create empathy and deep insight.
Remember, these points are only for guidance. The person and their situation must be taken into account when framing negative feedback.
Critical Versus Constructive Feedback
Whether giving feedback to a staff member, peer, client, or service provider, it is crucial to understand how to make it valuable.
Indeed, feedback can be constructive when either positive or negative, as long as it encourages growth. On the other hand, critical feedback serves little purpose other than to tell someone they are not very good.
We must, therefore, begin by considering the goal of feedback: improvement. The recipient should be clear about what has gone well and what needs to be rectified or progressed.
They should understand what they need to change and have a clear path to learning the skills required.
So, how do we provide constructive feedback without making it critical?
For constructive feedback to be useful, perform the following (Krakoff, 2020):
- Build trust
When you know you will be called upon to provide feedback at some point in the future, you are at an advantage.
Establish a positive relationship that is open, sincere, and trusting. Feedback is more readily accepted from someone we know, respect, trust, and who has our best interests at heart.
- Balance the positives and the negatives
No one is all bad or all good.
Present a balanced perspective that encourages positive behaviors while recognizing the negative ones they need to work through. It is important not to mislead and yet offer some positive points to remain motivated.
- Talk face-to-face
Constructive criticism should, when possible, take place in person. A phone call does not convey body language and may mask the nuances of the conversation.
An email may have no apparent context, lack clarity, and land in the person’s inbox like a cartoon bomb waiting to explode when clicked.
- Don’t pre-judge
Until you have had a chance to talk to the person involved, avoid assigning meaning or intent to what has happened.
Let the person have the opportunity to explain why they behaved as they did.
- Be specific
Don’t overgeneralize or drift into other issues.
Focus on the point of feedback.
- Don’t become personal
Do not confuse the person with their actions.
Being personal will lead the recipient to shut down. They will be less likely to act on, or learn from, the points shared.
- Be consistent
Depending on the feedback frequency, the recipient shouldn’t be surprised by what you have to say. Regular interaction can help avoid lengthy, negative, and unexpected feedback.
- Keep feedback fresh
Avoid a long gap between the incident (or behavior) and providing feedback. The discussion should be current so that no one is trying to remember who or what was involved.
Ensure the approach fits the context. Are you aware of any family or health issues that could be influencing performance? How has the person reacted to feedback before?
Answers to these questions will influence how positive and negative feedback are handled.
8 Real-Life Examples
Delivering feedback in an appropriate and nuanced way is challenging. To do it well, practice, experience, and observation are essential.
The following examples may provide a starting point:
|What was said
|What it could be replaced with
|You are missing deadlines, and it is impacting the rest of the team and the project.
|I’ve noticed you are finding time-management a challenge. Is there anything I can do to help?
|You haven’t met your targets. I’m concerned it is going to drag down the team’s performance.
|You haven’t met your targets, but I know how hard you have been working. Are there any obstacles in your way that I can help with?
|I’ve seen your late-night emails to the team; I’m concerned you are not in control of your work.
|I’ve seen your late-night emails to the team; I’m worried about your work–life balance. Can we dig in a little deeper to understand your workload?
|You’ve stepped into the new role and don’t seem to be handling things well.
|Well done on the new role. I am sure there are challenges. Can we discuss any support and training that may be helpful?
|You seemed annoyed in the meeting yesterday; it made reaching a decision very difficult.
|I noticed you appeared upset yesterday at the meeting. Can we discuss how things are going?
There are many ways to frame feedback; consider the goal of providing it and how to frame it as an opportunity for growth.
Useful Feedback in the Workplace Videos
There are some excellent videos online that offer useful guidance for providing feedback:
The secret to giving great feedback
From The Way We Work TED series, cognitive scientist LeeAnn Renninger offers scientific insights into the best approach to providing feedback, along with a set of powerful tools proven to help.
How to give negative feedback in the workplace
This video provides pragmatic advice on building trust, establishing relationships, and a positive approach to providing feedback in the workplace.
Giving feedback for strong performance
Shari Harley’s video reminds us to consider the goal of performance feedback versus our personal motives. Without honest practical feedback and actionable plans, growth opportunities will be missed.
Tips for Giving Negative Feedback at Work
We shouldn’t avoid providing (or receiving) negative feedback. While it is not always pleasant – potentially shattering a staff member’s bubble of perfection – critical input is essential to company performance (Chappelow & McCauley, 2019).
While we may not like giving feedback, research suggests employees want more, not less – and both positive and negative input (Rice, 2011).
It’s true; if we never get feedback, how do we know how we are doing? Those with a growth mindset will see feedback as an opportunity to track how they are doing and seek the help they need to develop (Zojceska, 2019).
Therefore, to minimize the perception of threat, we need to consider the delivery. The following pared-down approach equally applies to a member of your team, outside consultant, or colleague.
Negative feedback in a nutshell
Chappelow and McCauley from the Center for Creative Leadership teach an approach called Situation–Behavior–Impact. It is a simple yet potent model for work-based situations.
Both strengths and weaknesses must be communicated clearly and specifically, in a professional and caring way by making clear:
- When and where the behavior occurred
- What the behavior was
- What the outcome of the behavior was (i.e., thoughts, feelings, and actions)
At the same time, when you are giving feedback, make sure you are not:
- Being judgmental – You should not have said that
- Overgeneralizing – You always say that
- Assuming the thoughts behind the behavior – You have no respect
When delivered appropriately, feedback is more likely to be heard, thought about, and acted upon.
The final stage is to agree on the next steps that will ultimately avoid the behavior or the outcome.
Feedback to your manager
Perhaps one of the more career-limiting situations can be providing feedback to your manager in the wrong way. Overstep, and your advancement may be restricted; respond too weakly, and you may not be considered leadership material.
It’s a knife’s edge. So how do you approach it?
According to Jeremy McAbee (2019), there are three techniques for useful “upward feedback” – some of which we have already encountered:
- Be specific
Don’t talk in generalizations or abstractions, and use specific concrete examples.
- Focus on your perspective
Use “I” rather than “you.” This approach maintains focus on your thoughts, beliefs, and feelings in the situation.
- Come up with solutions
If related to an issue you are facing, rather than a behavior, offer a solution. How could you help? Is there a way you could remove or reduce the problem?
What shouldn’t I do?
During the feedback, do not do the following (especially if feedback is negative):
- Explain what you would do in their position
- Speculate on why they behaved the way they did
- Choose the wrong time to provide the feedback; for example, in front of other people or during a crisis
Within work, feedback should be given and received in a non-personal way, focusing on doing what is right for the company.
However, we all have human tendencies to be petty, narrow minded, and suffer from fragile egos. Balance the above advice and the knowledge and relationship you have with the colleague.
Unless it is a human resources issue, an informal approach – perhaps over a cup of coffee – may work better than something too formal.
Do you find it difficult to deliver negative feedback or criticism in a way that is clear yet positive and helpful?
It is widely accepted by psychologists, managers, and educators that feedback is important (Ilgen & Davis, 2000). However, giving negative feedback in a way that is constructive and conducive to wellbeing rather than harsh and judgmental can be a challenge.
Common concerns are – hurting the other person’s feelings, coming across as authoritative, and not wanting to demotivate or discourage the other person.
Luckily, positive psychology (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000) offers guidance for giving constructive feedback in a positive way.
We suggest the following eight steps as a practical guide for practitioners, leaders, and anyone who needs to provide feedback:
- Accept the internal discomfort of providing negative feedback
- Create a safe space for the conversation
- State your intention
- Separate the person’s work from the person
- Reframe the amount of feedback as an indication of care
- Encourage a growth mindset
- Acknowledge the subjective nature of the situation
- End on a positive note
Can There Be Too Much Feedback? – Possibly
While most of us would agree that feedback – positive and negative – is valuable to the individual, aspects of feedback have been called into question.
Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall, writing for the Harvard Business Review (2019), challenge the value of “telling people what we think of their performance and how they should do it better.”
Indeed “radical transparency”– as practiced at Netflix and the Wall Street Journal – may not only fail to improve performance but could be damaging.
After all, such direct engagement assumes that other people are more aware of your weaknesses than you are. Feedback also suggests you lack specific abilities that must be remediated.
Overall, feedback could be described as “my way is necessarily your way.”
These are all points that should be borne in mind before offering feedback.
Therefore, we must ensure feedback is provided for the right reasons, recognizing that it may be better to play to a person’s strengths rather than “fix” weaknesses.
PositivePsychology.com Helpful Resources
If you are passionate about helping others improve their lives in meaningful ways, our Emotional Intelligence Masterclass© is for you.
It includes all the materials you need to deliver high-quality EQ training sessions that are science-based.
The Giving Negative Feedback Positively worksheet from the Positive Psychology Toolkit© is a hugely popular tool that can be used to provide practical guidance on how to deliver negative feedback in a constructive way, conducive to wellbeing without being harsh and judgmental.
Another toolkit tool perfect for practitioners is Adopting a Growth Mindset to Criticism, which is an invaluable next step after receiving negative feedback. It is a 20-minute exercise that addresses oversensitivity and instead focuses on constructive growth.
This article on nonviolent communication is a useful start for a manager prone to steamroll conversations, with books and tools to improve nonviolent communication in any situation.
If you’re looking for more science-based ways to help others communicate better, this collection contains 17 validated positive communication tools for practitioners. Use them to help others improve their communication skills and form deeper and more positive relationships.
A Take-Home Message
Feedback is a valuable approach for bridging the gap between what someone is doing and what is expected of them.
When provided regularly, it offers practical insights that support development and increased performance – a win for both the individual and the organization.
However, negative feedback must be handled carefully. The person providing it should be clear on their motivation and understand the goal of the activity. They must also consider the context: personal and contextual circumstances and an awareness that there may be information they currently lack.
Finally, it would be foolish to assume that our way is always the most appropriate. If encouraged to play to their strengths, the person receiving the feedback may possibly find a more effective way of resolving difficulties.
Explore the techniques, learn from the examples, and provide feedback based on the goal of growth.
We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Work & Career Coaching Exercises for free.
- Brim, B., & Asplund, J. (2009, November 12). Driving engagement by focusing on strengths. Gallup Business Journal. Retrieved October 8, 2020, from https://news.gallup.com/businessjournal/124214/driving-engagement-focusing-strengths.aspx
- Buckingham, M., & Goodall, A. (2019, March–April). Why feedback rarely does what it’s meant to. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved October 8, 2020, from https://hbr.org/2019/03/the-feedback-fallacy
- Chappelow, C., & McCauley, C. (2019, May 13). What good feedback really looks like. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved October 8, 2020, from https://hbr.org/2019/05/what-good-feedback-really-looks-like
- Ilgen, D., & Davis, C. (2000). Bearing bad news: Reactions to negative performance feedback. Applied Psychology, 49(3), 550-565.
- Krakoff, S. (2020). How to give constructive feedback in the workplace. Retrieved October 8, 2020, from https://online.champlain.edu/blog/giving-constructive-feedback
- McAbee, J. (2019, November 5). 3 techniques for giving feedback to your manager that actually work (plus sample 1:1 agenda). Retrieved October 8, 2020, from https://www.wrike.com/blog/3-techniques-giving-feedback-manager/
- Prossack, A. (2018, August 31). How to give negative feedback more effectively. Forbes. Retrieved October 8, 2020, from https://www.forbes.com/sites/ashiraprossack1/2018/08/31/how-to-give-negative-feedback-more-effectively/
- Rice, A. (2011, September 28). Globoforce reveals 2011 workforce mood tracker survey results. Retrieved October 8, 2020, from https://www.globoforce.com/press-releases-archive/globoforce-reveals-2011-workforce-mood-tracker-survey-results/
- Seligman, M. E., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000). Positive psychology: An introduction (Vol. 55, No. 1, p. 5). American Psychological Association.
- Zojceska, A. (2019, May 18). How to give negative feedback to employees: 10 best techniques. TalentLyft. Retrieved October 8, 2020, from https://www.talentlyft.com/en/blog/article/303/how-to-give-negative-feedback-to-employees-10-best-techniques