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How to deliver negative feedback well: The 4 things that good managers do (that bad managers don’t)

A simple framework to help give tough feedback to a coworker.

The most common question I get asked by a manager who doesn’t want to become a bad boss is: “How do I give negative feedback to a coworker?

Giving honest feedback is the most deceptively difficult thing for a manager to do. A survey of nearly 8,000 people, in fact, found that 21% of managers avoid giving negative feedback entirely.

In our heads, it seems straightforward enough. We know it’s the right thing to do. We know it’s important. We should just get on with it.

But it’s never that simple. We don’t want to demotivate an employee with our feedback. We don’t want an employee to think we’re out to get them. We don’t want our feedback to backfire.

All is not lost. It’s possible to give honest feedback and not feel stressed — and not have it blow up in our face. Here are the four things that good managers do when delivering negative feedback:

Come from a place of care.

You’re giving feedback because you care. You deeply care about this person’s personal and career growth. You deeply care about the project’s success. You want both the person and the company to thrive. Communicate these things. Ask yourself: “What can I say to let this person know that this feedback is coming from a place of care and helpfulness? How do I let this person know I have good intentions, and that I’m not trying to spite them or be rude?” As you deliver the piece of critical feedback, make this clear.

For example, you could say something like: “I’m saying this because I believe in you and I want you to succeed…” or “This is important to me because I care about the company’s direction as a whole…” or “This matters to me because I only want to ensure that we perform well as a team…

Come from a place of observation.

We’re often worried that the person is going to take any negative feedback personally. This is a big reason why we avoid giving feedback or sugarcoat our feedback. It’s to say, “Hey look, I don’t think you’re a bad person…” or “I don’t want you to be mad at me…” Instead, look to communicate your feedback more objectively. Come from a place of observation. Focus on the actions and the situation of what happened — what you observed — and not the personal attributes or characteristics of the person.

For example, if you think a coworker wrote a sloppy email to the client, instead of saying: “I think you’re careless and sloppy”… you could say, “I noticed that in the email you wrote, there were a few careless mistakes that seemed sloppy.” See the difference? The former makes it about the person, while the latter makes it about your observations on what has happened.

Come from a place of fallibility.

Your feedback is not infallible. Don’t forget that your feedback is only an interpretation of what you observed, and your own perspective of how things can improve going forward. Your perspective is not a universal truth. You could be wrong. Be willing to admit that your feedback, while it’s something you strongly believe in, is colored by your own personal lens. Ask yourself: “How can I remind this person that this feedback is only my opinion? That this isn’t the word of God, that mistakes happen, that there may be information I’m missing?”

A few examples of how you can do this is to say directly: “I might be off…” or to ask, “Is there any information that you think I might be missing?

Come from a place of curiosity.

When you give feedback, it should feel like a conversation. No one likes being talked at. Your time to give feedback also is a time to listen to what the other person thinks, as well. Be curious. Consider: “How does this person feel about my feedback? Was there anything I might have misinterpreted or overlooked? Is there anything that I can be doing better to help support the other person?” During a one-on-one meeting, you want to invite the person to give their side of their story.

To do this, simply ask after sharing your feedback: “What do you think?

When you’re curious, you’re signaling that you value hearing their perspective on what happened. You’re not mad, upset, or resentful. You see the moment of giving feedback as an opportunity to learn and get better as a leader, yourself.

Sure, all the tactics I’m describing are a little more nuanced than other ways you might be familiar with to give feedback — especially the catchy “Shit Sandwich” moniker, in particular. And yes, they require a bit more intention and thought prior to do well.

But when you come from a place of care, observation, fallibility, and curiosity — it makes for a much more honest and productive conversation. You’re going to get a better result.

The person on the other side is going to feel like you’re really trying to help them. And that’s the whole point of giving feedback, after all.


☀️ Ready to start giving feedback using this framework? Then you’ll want to use Know Your Team’s One-on-One Tool to help you make sure you’re delivering feedback in this way during your one-on-one meetings. We give you guidance on how to prepare and give feedback, as well as hundreds of suggested questions and agenda templates to make the most out of your one-on-ones. Give the One-on-Ones Tool in Know Your Team a shot today. 

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Written by Claire Lew

CEO of Know Your Team. My mission in life is to help people become happier at work. Say hi to me on Twitter at @clairejlew.

Comments

  1. This advice is outstanding! Thank you for writing it.

    However, I do think one of the points is weakened by an example:

    > I noticed that in the email you wrote, there were a few careless mistakes that seemed sloppy.

    As the post points out…

    > Instead, look to communicate your feedback more objectively

    I take that to mean avoid value judgments. I think “careless” and “sloppy” imply a value judgment. I think it would be more objective to refrain from those value judgment and focus on the facts and the impact.

    > I noticed in the email you wrote there were several typos and factual mistakes that made the message harder for me to understand and doesn’t meet the standard we all hold ourselves to in our writing. What are your thoughts on this?

    When I posted a link to this article as an outstanding example of how to give feedback, there was at least one person who dismissed it because of that example. Obviously, I think they are wrong to dismiss the whole thing because of one example. But I think they are right that the example could be improved. What are your thoughts?

  2. These are interested interesting points. However, the recipient may be under pressure to perform within a certain timescale, especially with KPI’s. Therefore, if you have 30 minutes to do a job that realistically takes an hour, mistakes are bound to happen. What would happen if the recipient points this out to the Manager? “Time is money” is also something that gets banded about in the office. Everything is measured and if you have staff members who work late on a regular basis because they feel they have to to keep their job, obviously there will be resentment. This is something that occurs within a lot of companies who feel that you have to work late to obtain recognition to show you have gone above and beyond the call of duty. If a regular job can’t be performed within 9 to 5 then that company will lose valued members of staff very quickly. No one should be made to feel worthless because of a few typing mistakes.

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