How to give negative feedback people will actually want to hear

Feedback is tricky business. We all inherently want to improve, and so we should want more of it. But in practice it rarely works that way. Instead, when we hear negative feedback, it sets alarm bells off. We feel physically threatened and our brain goes into defensive mode.

But clear lines of communication, especially feedback, is a major booster for workplace productivity. So, what if there were ways we could learn to love receiving feedback—good or bad?

As it turns out it’s not just up to the person receiving feedback, but the person giving it.

In one study of nearly a thousand employees around the world, 92% believed that negative feedback is effective at improving our performance—”if delivered properly.”

As a manager or leader, it’s your job to communicate and teach. And you’re holding your teammates back if you’re not delivering feedback in the right way. Luckily, people have been trying to find the best way to communicate feedback  since the dawn of work.

To help you give negative feedback your team will actually want to hear, we dove into the latest research on communication, transparency, and building an open workplace culture.

Step 1: Understand the psychology of feedback (and how it affects the person receiving it)

Conversation

Think about what happened the last time you received some critical feedback. Most likely you tensed up. You felt anxiety wash over you. And you probably started looking for any escape from the conversation.

Researchers have discovered that negative feedback can be so traumatic for our ego that we’ll actually censor the information we’re receiving.

Put bluntly, if negative feedback feels threatening, we won’t even listen to it.

When Harvard doctoral candidate, Paul Green, examined data from companies that use a transparent peer-review system, he found that in almost every case where someone received negative feedback, they distanced themselves from that person.

Psychologists call this “confirmation shopping”—where our ego feels threatened and so we seek out people who will confirm our beliefs about ourselves. As Green describes it:

“There’s an assumption that what motivates people to improve is the realization that they’re not as good as they think they are. But in fact, it just makes them go find people who will not shine that light on them.”

The first step in providing negative feedback is to make sure you understand how the person receiving it is going to react.

You might be coming to them with the best intentions. But if they don’t feel safe in the conversation, they’re either not going to listen or go looking for someone who tells them what they want to hear.

As Green explains, negative feedback puts employees in a position where they have to deal with duelling motivations: the need to feel valuable and the need to improve.

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Step 2: Work on building a culture where negative feedback isn’t threatening

The solution is to create a culture where negative feedback is seen as a tool employees can use for improving. Not a threat to their livelihood.

Unfortunately, that’s no easy task. For anyone.

In a study of 2,700 leaders, researchers found that the majority avoid giving feedback, while 43% described the act as a “stressful and difficult experience.” And while it’s unrealistic to think it won’t be a little uncomfortable explaining how someone missed the mark, not doing so is even worse for the culture.

Kim Scott, CEO coach and author of Radical Candor, explains how a feedback culture that delays giving criticism or “sugar coats it beyond the point of clarity” can be worse for both employees and leaders:

“They worry that what they say will cause more damage, or make people disengage. They worry that what they need to communicate won’t come out quite right or be well received. So they sit in silence — which ends up feeling far worse when people around them continue to make the same mistakes, underperform, and gradually get managed out.”

One solution is to set the expectations around negative feedback early on. That means showing your employees that they are valuable no matter what feedback you’re giving. As First Round Capital partner, Phil Barnes, explains:

“When you first start to work with someone, it’s worth saying, ‘Hey, you’re in this job, which means you jumped over a pretty high bar. I’ve looked at your background. I sat in on the hiring process. I know you’re smart. And I know you’re capable and will work hard. I’m here to maximize your potential. And I’m grateful for the opportunity.’”

This sort of validation helps reduce the threat of negative feedback. In fact, in one study where employees were asked to spend 10 minutes writing about their values before being given feedback, the entire “shopping for confirmation” effect disappeared.

When an employee feels valued, it helps clarify the intention of negative feedback. Or, as New York Times’ Smarter Living editor, Tim Herrera, explains:

“The solution—whether you’re receiving the feedback or giving it—boils down to trusting that everyone is participating in good faith.”

Step 3: Reframe feedback as “guidance”

guidance

With trust and understanding in place, how do you actually deliver the negative feedback you need to give?

The first step is to think about how you’re going to frame the feedback. When you think about it, the best feedback we get is really just “guidance.” It’s a combination of praise and criticism. While feedback is something we’re afraid and want to run from. Guidance is something we all long for.

But while this is a good start, it’s not enough to just say you’re giving guidance.

As Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen point out in Thanks for the Feedback, we judge ourselves by our intentions, while others judge us by the effects of our actions. Intending to give ‘guidance’ doesn’t really matter if how you execute it still feels like a slap in the face.

This means both what you say and how you say it.

When researcher Marie Dasborough studied the effects of body language during feedback, she found that people who received positive feedback accompanied by negative emotional signals reported feeling worse about their performance than participants who received good-natured negative feedback.

The delivery, both in intention and in execution, will determine whether or not the person you’re talking to will absorb and act on the negative feedback you give them.

As Brené Brown—author and TED speaker—wrote in her book, Daring Greatly:

“The research has made this clear: Vulnerability is at the heart of the feedback process. This is true whether we give, receive, or solicit feedback.”

When you engage in a way that shows vulnerability and understanding, you’re showing the feedback is meant to help, not harm.

Step 4: Focus on candor and forget the “sandwich” method

When it comes to what you actually say during your negative feedback session, the same rules apply. Start with the right intentions and execute in a way that feels safe, helpful, and vulnerable.

This means skipping any sort of half-hearted, superficial compliments and focusing on the truth. Unfortunately, because negative feedback can be so awkward, we try to “soften the blow”.

But, as Radical Candor author Kim Scott explains, this “shuttle democracy” creates a toxic environment where the truth gets shoved under the rug. As First Round Capital’s Phil Barnes explains:

“So much advice about giving feedback says to sandwich negative points between compliments… but in my experience, people just want you to be genuine and direct.”

Start by letting the person know they have your unwavering support as an individual and an employee. And that this won’t change idea-by-idea or deliverable-by-deliverable. Then, lay out the feedback in as clear an open a way as possible.

According to Dr. Kristen Swanson, Director of Learning at Slack, that means making sure what you’re saying is:

  • Specific: Tie the feedback to the person’s action and an outcome. Point out exactly what they’ve done and why it matters.
  • Not personalized: Keep the feedback performance and not personality based. Even phrases like “you’re a rockstar!” are problematic because they reinforce social status rather than someone’s work.
  • Timely: Provide the feedback at the soonest possible moment. Not only will they be much more likely to take it in and act on it. But sitting on negative feedback for too long can make it feel more severe than you intended.
  • Noted and shared: As a manager, write down the feedback and share it with the individual as well as the plan you came up with for fixing the situation. This way it feels more permanent and gives them a place to look back on when they’re in a similar situation in the future.

Step 5: Before you give feedback, ask: Is it true? Is it necessary? Is it kind?

necessary feedback

Finally, it’s good to run any negative feedback you’re going to give through a simple test to make sure it needs to be given.

For this, organizational psychologist Khatera Sahibzada refers back to a Sufi saying dating from the 13th century:

“Before you speak, let your words pass through these three gates: At the first gate, ask yourself, ‘Is it true?’ At the second gate, ask yourself, ‘Is it necessary?’ At the third gate, ask yourself, ‘Is it kind?’”

In more modern terms: is your feedback unbiased, essential, and civil?

There are all sorts of unconscious biases than can potentially affect the kind and severity of feedback you’re giving. In a study of performance ratings of 4,492 employees, researchers discovered that more than 60% were skewed by idiosyncratic bias—such as the tendency to rate an individual based on our overall impression of them (also known as the “halo error”).

In another study from Stanford, researchers found that managers are more likely to perceive women’s accomplishments as part of the team effort, while men’s were seen as individual efforts.

Ask what unconscious biases might be affecting the way you talk to a team mate.

Next, ask if the feedback is necessary? Most studies have found that after a certain point, more feedback actually leads to worse performance.

Finally, is the feedback you’re giving kind and genuinely helpful? A study of 400 manufacturing employees found that negative feedback was most motivating when it was delivered in a way that was constructive, actionable, and respectful.

Feedback—both good and bad—is integral to a meaningful career

Negative feedback is one of the most dividing things we can deal with at work. Done poorly and it can create a toxic environment, reduce productivity, and get in the way of clear communication.

Yet, by embracing a culture of openness, actively show employees and teammates they’re valued and respected, and delivering feedback as guidance, you can turn negative feedback into an incredible tool for promoting meaningful work.

How do you handle giving (or receiving) negative feedback at work? Let us know in the comments or on Twitter.

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Jory MacKay

Jory MacKay is a writer, content marketer, and editor of the RescueTime blog.

2 comments

    1. Thanks Joe! Great post as well. I think the thing I found most interesting about this topic was just what you said: that the approach and context around feedback is the most important part (regardless if the feedback is positive or negative)

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