How great managers give negative feedback

Written by: Alison Robins | Illustrated by: Julia GR
Published on August 27, 2020 | Reading time: 10m

Whether you call it “negative feedback” or “constructive criticism,” as a manager you know that giving it is integral to the growth of your employees. But that doesn’t make giving negative feedback an easy task.

Let’s demystify the negative aura surrounding constructive feedback and ensure that the feedback becomes more effective in both its delivery and reception. This article lays out some actionable tips that will empower you to give negative feedback like a true leader.

What is negative feedback?

What negative feedback should be is offering someone a perspective on a behaviour or action with the intention of helping them improve. 

Feedback expert Marcus Buckingham explains that feedback, even from one’s manager, should never be delivered as a source of truth, because “humans are unreliable raters of other humans.” Just because you are someone’s boss, does not mean that your vantage point onto a situation is the ultimate truth.

This is why managers should use language that encompasses feedback as a perspective. It’s also why negative feedback is best achieved when it’s conversation focused on helping employees hone in on their strengths, as “focusing people on their shortcomings doesn’t enable learning; it impairs it.” Here are a few examples of how he suggests giving negative feedback.

Instead of: You need to improve your communication skills.
Try saying: Here’s exactly where you started to lose me (feedback as perspective)

Instead of: Here’s where you need to improve.
Try saying: Here’s what worked best for me, and here’s why (focus on strengths) 

While there are arguments to focus more on positive feedback and not to shy away from negative feedback, the truth is you shouldn’t take these two approaches as mutually exclusive. While it’s true that positive reinforcement has a greater impact than pure criticism, it’s ultimately the intention behind the feedback that’s most important. Remind your employees that you are offering feedback because you care about them and their development. 

Negative feedback’s ultimate goal is to empower your people to take control of their own personal growth. The right amount of negative feedback, delivered with the correct language and with good intentions, is what’s best for your employees and your team. It’s all about finding that sweet spot.

Master your feedback skills with our simple 10-step feedback framework.

hand holding an ebook on feedback

Why negative feedback is important

The first thing you might think of when it comes to negative feedback is the need to correct mistakes. Or perhaps to inform someone that their behavior is rubbing some of their teammates the wrong way. But there’s something even more important when it comes to negative feedback: it supports your employees’ growth and development.

Your employees want to work where they can improve upon their skills and expand in their role. Yet according to our Officevibe Pulse Survey data,

28% of employees do not feel that the feedback they receive helps them grow and develop.

Giving feedback is a crucial skill for a manager aiming to help everyone on their team reach those growth goals. It’s an opportunity for you to demonstrate your personal investment in the professional development of your team members. But when negative feedback isn’t done right, it can have adverse effects that impact team performance. Let’s take a look…

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What are the effects of negative feedback?

Depending on how you give negative feedback, the outcomes can vary. Here’s a breakdown of the effects of negative feedback:

Negative feedback: Leadership wayNegative feedback: Bossy way
Positive and encouraging work atmosphereNegative and intimidating workplace
Engaged and motivated employeesDemotivated and disengaged employees
Encourages team to be creative and experimentDiscourages people from stepping outside of what’s expected
Employees seek out your advice and guidanceEmployees avoid asking for your input or help
Team sees you as someone who offers solutionsTeam sees you as someone who points out problems

It’s not easy giving negative feedback

We’re all human—social beings who respond to each other’s words and emotions. Having areas for improvement pointed out can trigger uncomfortable feelings for the person on the receiving end. As a manager, it’s normal to be worried about how your employees will react. What if they get angry? Cry? Don’t like me? Or what if they quit? 

There’s no doubt it can be a daunting task. We feel you. But the reason why it’s so intimidating is ultimately the same reason why it’s so necessary: because you care about your employees.

Negative feedback delivered constructively and with the best intentions shows them you care, and that’s what they need most of all for their personal and professional development. We’re here to help you nail down your approach so you’re lifting employees up, rather than knocking them down.

Outline your feedback and thoughts ahead of time 

screenshot of Officevibe's 1-on-1 conversation engine

Outlining your thoughts ahead of your 1-on-1 prepares you to deliver negative feedback effectively, and there are tools to support you in this. Officevibe’s 1-on-1 Conversation Engine suggests talking points that make tough topics less touchy. It aligns your feedback with Team Goals and employees’ Individual Goals, so you come to the conversation with points that further everyone’s objectives, rather than just feelings or impressions.

How to give negative feedback

There’s one essential element that underpins the success of negative feedback: trust. Having the trust and respect of your employees makes them more receptive to feedback, especially negative feedback. The best way to earn their trust is to give them yours. 

The negative feedback loop in a graphic

Focus on building trust with your team members, and use the following tips to make your negative feedback delivery more effective.

1. Listen up

Sure, giving feedback can sound one-directional. But every productive conversation is a two-way street. If you want to point out somewhere an employee can improve, or a mistake you feel they’ve made, start by asking them if they’re aware of the issue. Hear them out on their theories of what can be done better.

Try the present-past-future method by asking these questions:

  1. How do you think things are going right now? Do you have any current issues?
  2. Have you ever had these issues in the past? How did you deal with them?
  3. What do you think we can do to resolve these issues and do better?

2. Avoid getting personal

Negative feedback should never be directed at an employee’s personality. It’s a critique of their actions or behaviour—both are amenable while changing people is not your job. The negative feedback session should point out specific concrete examples, not character flaws.

Instead of: You’re too slow and you’re not keeping up with your peers.
Try saying: I noticed you were struggling to meet your deadline last week, let’s talk about what was blocking you.

While you shouldn’t make it personal about them, the feedback should be personal coming from you. For example: Use openers like “I think / I feel / I wonder if…” instead of offering feedback from a general perspective, like: “You are…”

3. Be genuine

You may have heard of the compliment sandwich: hiding negative feedback between two vague compliments to lessen the blow. This is actually counterproductive, as your employees deserve your authenticity. Yes, a great feedback session can definitely include both the pros and the cons. But all forms of feedback, especially negative, should focus on concrete examples.

Instead of: You’re all over the place lately but I know you have the capability of focusing, what’s the problem?
Try saying: I really loved the workflow structure you implemented in your last project. Here’s how I think it could support you in maintaining your focus on this current initiative…

Keeping a running “highlight reel” of everyone’s greatest plays helps you have concrete examples on-hand to tie into your feedback to make it more specific. People crave real recognition and this is a way you can tie it into your feedback practices.

4. Focus on solutions

Giving negative feedback isn’t just about evaluating, it’s about evolution; you want to improve productivity and help employees grow. This means helping to establish steps forward, not only sharing your take on the present.

Feedback isn’t just about evaluating, it’s about evolution.

Try the problem-implications-solution approach:

  1. Talk about the issue (problems)
  2. Explain how the issue affects the team, project, or company (implications)
  3. Workshop and agree on ways to resolve the issue together (solutions)

However you break down the order of feedback, the conversation has to be productive. You want to leave your employees with some actionable advice and further guidance.

5. Collect feedback with Officevibe

As a manager, you should not only master giving negative feedback but asking for critical feedback too. Why? If you want your employees to be open to your suggestions, you have to be open to theirs in return. You want your team to know that you appreciate and value their opinion on how you’re doing as their leader. 

Implement a simple feedback tool like Officevibe for your employees to give you continuous feedback. Not only does it track a metric dedicated to learning how they feel about your Feedback Frequency and Feedback Quality, but you can ask questions unique to your team using the Custom Poll feature. A great place to start is asking your employees about your feedback skills, so you know how your feedback is landing with them. Not all employees will respond the same way to your coaching, and this is a great way to gain a deeper understanding of each individual on your team and fine-tune your style for each of them.

Including “Manager Feedback about (topic)” as a talking point in your Officevibe 1-on-1 agenda will give your team member the chance to reflect on things you can improve, rather than responding informally after a (possibly emotional) feedback session.

screenshot of Officevibe app on mobile

Tip: After you’ve practiced giving feedback for a while, it’s a good idea to check in with your team to make sure it’s landing in the constructive way you intended. On top of checking in with their performance and speaking to them directly, you can use an employee engagement tool like Officevibe to see if your team’s scores have shifted on metrics like “Feedback,” “Relationship with Manager,” and “Recognition.”

Bonus Dos and Don’ts:

  • Don’t be rash. Take some time to plan how to offer negative feedback.
  • Do make time for a private conversation, as it can be sensitive.
  • Don’t send an email. Feedback sessions should be a conversation.
  • Don’t stockpile negative feedback and dish it all at once.
  • Do find the right frequency and balance for feedback of all kinds.
  • Do plan your meeting ahead of time and give your employee some time to outline their own feedback and talking points.

How to give negative feedback remotely

In the work-from-home era, giving negative feedback must understandably go through some changes. Yes, an in-person conversation is always better, but while that’s off the table, here are some tips to support you in your remote feedback delivery:

  1. No emails. Have a video call or at least a regular phone call.
  2. Don’t spring it on your employee spontaneously. Let them know in advance you want to have a chat and give them an idea of what it will be about.
  3. Offer a feedback platform to keep lines of communication open without interrupting people’s flow of work. Try Officevibe to give your employees a direct line to share their feedback with you.
  4. Finally, be more understanding than usual. Working from home affects everyone differently, and poses new challenges for your team. Factor this into your feedback prep.

Master your feedback skills with our simple 10-step feedback framework.

hand holding an ebook on feedback

Negative feedback: from trust to growth

Ultimately, negative feedback is necessary to keep your employees on track, and to keep everyone working happily as a team. There’s no avoiding it. But you can cease dreading it with a little considered planning, a fair assessment of your employee’s reality, and a caring approach.

The benefits of giving well-delivered negative feedback, which is open, respectful, and solution-oriented, go well beyond avoiding mistakes or awkward office politicking. It gains the trust and respect of your team, which makes them more open to receive and act on your constructive criticism. And this will foster an environment of growth and support for everyone.