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The art of giving negative feedback: do’s and don’ts

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One of the most important communication skills each manager or team leader should possess is the ability to give and receive feedback, especially negative feedback. It is one of the most challenging aspects in a working environment, and it is vital for managers to learn how and when to give negative feedback.

Most often than not, dysfunctional negative feedback occurs when feedback is only given when employees fall short of performance requirements.

The first thing to realize is that people tend to respond more strongly when it comes to receiving negative feedback than positive one, as discovered by professor Andre Miner, together with his colleagues from the University of Minnesota, in a study published in 2005. For most people, it is not easy to open their mind and digest the negative feedback they may get from others and try to learn something from it, especially when it is not given in a constructive way.

What to do?

1) Schedule regular check-ins with your employees, regarding the projects they are working on, so that giving feedback – both positive and negative – will become a normal part of their daily activities. In this way, you are also able to identify in advance any aspects that need improving, before getting to the final stages of the projects, where things might get more complicated.

2) Create a positive culture, where managers at all levels help employees feel they are doing worthwhile work and are therefore important. The type of culture that avoids giving dysfunctional negative feedback, as it can belittle one’s sense of importance; one where employees are not afraid to make mistakes and see them as references for improvement.

3) It might sound odd for a manager to ask permission to give feedback to its employees, but this can tip people off that criticism is incoming and might make them more receptive to hearing it and trying to understand what has to be improved.

4) It is also extremely important to frame criticism in terms of the results employees have to achieve and how they can get there, rather than making employees feel bad about their mistakes. One cannot understand how to meet expectations, when there is no explanation of what has to be improved.

Employees need to know exactly what went wrong and what is expected of them. Also, give examples of how things should have been done, which will further clarify matters and possibly gain you the respect of your team, as it shows you are truly involved in helping them improve.

What to avoid?

I. Avoid jumping to conclusions, before giving finding out the causes of underperformance or unwelcome behaviors. If someone comes late at work and leaves earlier, this does not necessarily reflect lack of commitment; if someone makes a mistake, this does not reflect malevolence towards the company. Employee explanations should come first, jumping to conclusions second.

II. Also, it is not recommended to store feedback for a long time, be it either positive or negative feedback. It should be given right away. Waiting for the annual feedback session, for instance, when the employee cannot do anything more than just hear criticism that has been stored for a certain period of time and is being blasted at him/her, is extremely counterproductive.

III. Never feed someone a “sandwich”, as it has no point to bookend your criticism with compliments. Everybody knows that this is just a technique used by managers and many others, to simply ease out criticism. Instead, it is better to be sincere and start an early discussion about what happened, why it happened, and what kind of support would the employee need to better align with the company’s expectations.

IV. Avoid giving dysfunctional negative feedback messages, as it definitely does more harm than good. It can be deeply harmful to an individual’s self-confidence and self-esteem, especially when it comes from a prime point of authority, such as a parent or a boss. Next time a mistake happens, the employee will feel terror thinking about what he did wrong. Or in other cases, there will be no more similar situations, as many employees choose to end this type of collaboration.

V. Last, but not least, although nowadays there are experts who disagree with the old notion of praise in public, criticism in private, from my point of view, it is better to deliver your criticism in private, if not praises as well.

Praises and criticism affect both the person being criticized, and his/her entire team. Managers or team leaders are supposed to be role models, and if that is the attitude promoted inside the company, then it has to be taken into account that other colleagues might follow their attitude and bring harm to their co-workers, thinking this is the right way to handle this.

All in all, making useful sense of giving and receiving negative feedback is difficult, but still possible and extremely important. It is on managers, team leaders and HR professionals to be willing to learn how to approach feedback sessions, but employees also have to understand that acting defensively in response to negative feedback simply makes it so that they deny themselves the opportunity to benefit from it.

It has to be seen as it is: a two-way street and a learning process for everybody.

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