Done properly, negative – or as I prefer to call it, constructive – feedback can have a positive effect, helping to improve performance, productivity and motivation. Nonetheless, giving (and receiving) negative feedback is something most people find awkward. Even worse, if it’s not done carefully, it can have a very detrimental effect on the employee’s engagement and performance.
In this article, I look at practical ways to make the situation a lot less uncomfortable and a lot more positive.
Organisational culture is key
Yes, there are practical ways to deliver constructive feedback effectively, and we’ll get to those next. But first, it’s important to note that the overall culture within the organisation plays a significant role in how feedback is received.
Everyone at every level of a business has things they want to get better at. How many people do you know who don’t want to get better at their job? I certainly do. The beauty of constructive feedback is that it helps us identify those areas for development and find ways to improve our performance.
Therefore, the best kind of company culture is one where negative feedback is seen as something positive. A culture where self-evaluation and self-awareness thrives, and people actively seek out opportunities to learn and grow. In order to achieve this, the business needs to cultivate a supportive environment where people are encouraged and helped to learn.
In practical terms, a good performance management culture means regular conversations between managers and their direct reports. An annual performance conversation just won’t cut it. It needs to be at least monthly, but ideally weekly. Some weeks that might mean a quick “everything’s ticking along fine” conversation. Some weeks are an opportunity to give praise when things are going brilliantly. And some weeks, when things haven’t gone so well, it means looking at what can be done differently in future.
Regular pulse surveys will also help to foster a culture of continuous feedback, where everyone is generally more aware and able to identify opportunities to do better.
How to deliver constructive feedback
The best way to give negative feedback is to have a supportive conversation – you know, like normal human beings. On paper that sounds easy. But in practice, fear, anxiety and just general awkwardness can make that conversation a lot more difficult.
The following steps will help strip the awkwardness away, so you can deliver negative feedback in a more constructive, positive way:
- Don’t store up negative feedback. If you keep putting it off, there’s a danger your negative feedback will come out in the worst possible way: frustration and anger. Or, you just end up overwhelming someone with a long list of their faults. Instead, create a process where feedback (both positive and negative) is given regularly, ideally weekly.
- Strip out the emotions. Don’t act all awkward and apologetic. Don’t be mean or aggressive. This is not a time for emotions – it’s a time for a frank, straightforward conversation to help your employee perform better.
- Balance the negative with positive … but at the right time. Experts disagree on whether it’s a good idea to soften negative comments with praise. Personally, I believe everyone needs to hear praise, but it shouldn’t dilute what you really need to say. So absolutely offer lots of regular positive reinforcement, but not when you’re giving negative feedback.
- Ask plenty of questions. Questions like “What was your thought process for X?” or “What do you think could be done better” not only encourages self-awareness and assessment, it can also help you understand any underlying issues. For example, the answers might reveal a simple miscommunication or lack of understanding that could be easily rectified.
- Keep it factual. Using concrete examples will help you stick to the facts and strip out emotions. So state two or three examples, and give the employee a chance to respond to each. It might also be helpful to discuss performance and expectations in relation to the job description. Are they not keeping up with one specific area of the role? Again, this is something concrete and factual, not an opinion or emotion.
- Agree specific actions for the future. But be sure to keep the focus on the positive results and behaviours you’d like to see, not a list of orders on what to do, how to do it and when to do it.
- Follow up regularly. Check in against the agreed goals and actions on a regular basis. For example, if you’re having weekly meetings, you could revisit the action points every three or four weeks.
Receiving negative feedback
The flip side of giving feedback is inviting and accepting feedback in return. You may be a manager or HR professional who has mastered the art of giving negative feedback, but when a colleague or direct report gives you some honest feedback in return, your reaction might surprise you!
If you really believe giving constructive feedback helps your people to improve their performance, then this is a great opportunity to practise what you preach. So, rather than taking it personally or getting defensive, try these steps instead:
- Don’t react straight away. A little distance will help you cut through the emotions, so take your time to reflect on what you’ve been told.
- Give yourself an honest self-evaluation and ask yourself, “How could I do this better?” Consider concrete practical examples, just as you would when giving feedback.
- Identify key learning points and actions that will help you do a better job.
- Check in regularly on your progress, both in terms of an honest self-evaluation and asking others for feedback.
By following these steps and encouraging a culture of continuous feedback, you can remove the fear and awkwardness from negative feedback and treat it as the positive opportunity it really is.
Where to go from here
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