Every manager and co-worker will have experienced the unpleasant task of having to give negative feedback at some point. We can dress it up all we like or rationalise it until sundown but, in the end, having to tell someone something they do not want to hear is never going to be a favourite task on anyone’s list. However, while accepting that it’s not the nicest of things to do, there are a few techniques you can employ to reduce the impact of negative feedback. Here are five underlying principles to apply that should help make the process less unpleasant for everyone.
1. Negative does not need to mean destructive
Try to avoid attacking or shaming the person receiving the feedback. Where possible use ‘we’ words rather than ‘you’ words, and supportive rather than destructive phrasing. Even if you have reached an endpoint for an employee (see number 5 below), there is no need to allow the process to become more damaging than necessary. For example, ‘can we talk about…’ is a much less aggressive opening than ‘I need to speak to you about…’. Similarly, ‘Let’s look at ways we can help avoid this again…’ is a lot more palatable for someone than ‘You need to make sure this doesn’t happen again’. You need to deliver some bad news, but you don’t need to deliver it in a hard, aggressive way. Simply swapping a negative word for a more supportive synonym can really take the edge off things.
2. Try not to play the blame game
Most of us will become defensive when presented with negative feedback. It is human nature to not want to be the cause of a problem, so sometimes this can result in someone trying to pass the blame. While it may well be that there are other factors, it is important not to allow them to cloud the issue. It is usually best to make a note to follow up any new information then get back to the point of the discussion. You should be prepared to take into account any new information, but you also need to ensure you cover what needs to be covered in the discussion. So, unless the new information is so game-changing that it means you need to change your approach, stick to the point.
3. Praise in public but keep negative feedback private, serious and structured
Nobody likes to lose face, so avoid public criticism. Moving a discussion to a more private location not only takes away the danger of public humiliation, it sets a boundary. Privacy also facilitates a more serious conversation and, while you don’t want to be unfriendly, you do need to be serious and professional. Avoid joking, and certainly do not allow any anger or frustration to creep in. It is also really important to have decided and noted what you intend to cover in the discussion before you start. If the situation does not improve and things move on, you want to ensure that you have followed procedure.
4. Stick to the facts, then review and set clear action points
Present the situation factually and logically, then support it with evidence as much as possible. It is difficult to argue with facts and easy to argue with a person. Just using the facts means you can make it all about work. Even when you are dealing with a clash of personalities, framing the problem in terms of getting the work done is heading for a solution, and working towards solutions is the real goal. Preferably you should reach a stage where you agree a set of measurable action points that will help the other person develop and grow. If this happens, they are more likely to be on board with the changes that need to be made. Once you have reached the end of the discussion, review the action points so that everyone agrees them, then give everyone copies in some written form.
5. End of the line scenario
Sometimes, there is simply no more feedback to be given, and you have done all you can. If you need to go down the disciplinary route, the last thing you want to be dealing with is a lack of evidence or something that can seem personal. Keeping to a plan and making sure you have noted everything will make it much easier to escalate if you need to.
Negative feedback may be difficult, but done right, it can be a starting point from which someone can develop, change and grow as an employee. To make this happen, you need to control and guide the feedback in a positive and collaborative way.