Bill Gates summarized the necessity of feedback in two simple sentences: “We all need people who will give us feedback. That’s how we improve.”
Honest feedback is necessary for improvement, but nobody wants to hear negative feedback, right? Actually, according to a study by Zenger/Folkman, a leadership development consultancy, almost everyone wants to hear negative feedback, but nobody wants to give negative feedback.
CEO Jack Zenger calls it “redirecting feedback.” He says it doesn’t make sense to call it negative feedback since corrective suggestions are often the most beneficial—and therefore positive—for the employee. “For many people, the most negative feedback is just the attaboy praise, a kind of hollow compliment, which many people perceive as disingenuous and not really being serious.”
92% of the study's respondents agreed that negative feedback, if delivered appropriately, is effective at improving performance.
Zenger/Folkman's findings are intriguing but may be a case of the grass being greener. Multi-year studies show those same individuals eager for negative feedback will distance themselves and reject feedback that is more negative than their current self-perception.
Thankfully, despite the mixed signals, there is a path forward. The key is in your delivery. Here's how to give constructive feedback without the messy repercussions.
Normalize feedback in the workplace
Positive reinforcement and constructive feedback should be at the core of your relationship with direct reports. Putting on a persona or following a template to give feedback will only dilute your message. With practice, delivering redirecting feedback will become second nature. If you give feedback often, then everyone you talk with will become accustomed to it. “Nobody will think: ‘Gee, what did she really mean by that comment? Does she not like me?’” writes venture capitalist Ben Horowitz of Andreessen Horowitz.
If you take initiative to make your direct reports comfortable with negative feedback and model how to appropriately deliver it, they’ll begin offering feedback to one another and maybe even to you. Be sure you are willing to listen to respectful feedback from your employees! “If people get comfortable talking about what each other are doing wrong, then it will be very easy to talk about what the company is doing wrong,” Horowitz writes.
Be direct, not mean
The purpose of corrective feedback is always to improve employee performance, so it’s important to focus on the observed behavior and the business effect it has. If the individual perceives he or she is being attacked personally, they will quickly turn defensive and you'll lose the opportunity for a meaningful discussion.
- Don’t use feedback as an excuse to vent: “Although it may make you feel better to get your own worries and insecurities off your chest, venting a string of criticisms seldom produces improved behavior,” Geoffrey James writes for Inc.com. “In fact, it usually creates resentment and passive resistance.”
- Don't jump to conclusions: There is always a way to state the facts without being cruel. For example, imagine one of your employees has been chronically late. If you say, “You just don’t seem to care as much about your job as you used to,” the employee won’t know which behavior you have a problem with and will probably get defensive. Just say, “I noticed you have been coming to work 30 or 40 minutes late pretty frequently. What’s going on?” The employee may be experiencing health issues or having trouble caring for a family member. If you say what’s on your mind without jumping to conclusions, you will see better results.
- Prime for negative feedback: If the negative or corrective feedback is coming as part of a performance review, the employee will be expecting it already. But especially if you haven’t already developed a culture where people feel comfortable discussing each other's shortcomings, you may want to prepare the employee before providing feedback that could be difficult to hear. “You can tip people off that a critique is coming (making them more receptive to hearing it) if you start the conversation with, ‘Can I give you some feedback?’” writes Harvard Business Review senior editor Sarah Green Carmichael.
Turn negative feedback into an opportunity for growth
Instead of focusing on blame, focus on the opportunity to improve and solutions to problems. If you’re giving feedback because you care about your direct reports and their development, they’ll be able to tell.
- Connect to larger company goals: People like to feel like they are part of the big picture. Explain what you would like to achieve and how this person is a vital part of it.
- Dialogue, not diatribe: Feedback, especially when negative, should be part of a collaborative discussion. Ask your employee: “How do you want to improve?” “What goals would you like to set for yourself?” A good employee is already looking for ways to do better work. Chances are, he already knows his shortcomings. Once they’re out in the open, you can work together on solutions.
- Separate discussions of critical feedback from pay and promotion: Combining these two topics “creates a toxic cocktail of emotions even the most mellow employee will have trouble managing,” Carmichael writes. Always make feedback about investing in employees, and you’ll avoid creating a fear of feedback.
Deliver timely, in-person feedback
How and when you deliver corrective feedback is just as important as why. Your methods may vary depending on the workplace and the employees, but here are some general guidelines.
- Don’t give negative feedback via email: That is passive aggressive and unfair to the employee. “That’s like lobbing hand grenades over a wall,” says electronic publishing expert Jonathan Seybold. “Email is more easily misconstrued, and when messages are copied, it brings other people into the fray.”
- Don’t save up negative feedback and deliver it all at once: That can overwhelm or upset the employee, or create a scenario where you’re unloading months of pent-up frustration. Giving corrective feedback in small chunks allows employees time to process it and implement new work strategies. Plus, if you give suggestions right after the fact, the project or incident you’re addressing will be fresh in both your minds.
Direct reports want feedback, your company will be better off for giving it, and you have the ability to provide it effectively and drama-free. Remember that it takes practice, and you will need to modify your approach depending on which direct report you’re working with. Don't wait until your next performance review to implement new strategies. The soon you can begin to foster a culture of positive reinforcement and candid, constructive feedback, the more receptive your team will be to what might otherwise be perceived as negative.