How to Put a Constructive Spin on Negative Feedback

A manager’s motivation for giving negative feedback to an employee should be to encourage change — to help the employee grow, get better results, or stop doing something that is holding back success.

While there are obviously differences in people’s receptiveness to corrective feedback, in general, research shows that people believe constructive criticism is essential to their career development. Millennials, in fact, crave feedback. Some studies have shown that employees today want corrective feedback over positive feedback by a three-to-one margin.

In a blog post on giving feedback to top sales performers on Salesforce.com, Peri Shawn agrees. “Most people like to receive accolades … but there’s a place where positive feedback can be unproductive.  When trying a new approach, salespeople usually appreciate and desire positive feedback. But once team members develop a level of skill or mastery in a particular area … they want to know what they did that didn’t work and figure out how to do it even better next time.”

The best time to deliver negative feedback is closest to the time of the behavior you’d like to change.  Accumulating items for an annual review that’s six months away is wasting time and risking a repeat. This is yet another reason your feedback—both positive and negative—should be structured and constant throughout the year. Nothing infuriates an employee more than waiting months to find out they’ve been doing something incorrectly while all you’ve done is kept track of how often they’ve done it.

How can you best deliver negative feedback in a constructive way?

  1. When appropriate, ask permission. “Can I give you some feedback?” Obviously, this doesn’t work in a situation where you’re correcting bad behavior, such as someone ducking out of work early every day. However, if you see someone doing a task incorrectly, this is a better way to approach the subject.
  2. Be clear and direct when stating the behavior you’ve observed. Don’t follow the feedback with comments that soften what you said. Don’t say more than is necessary. And don’t give the problem more weight than it deserves.
  3. Ask why the behavior is happening. There may be a good reason — not an excuse, but an underlying cause.
  4. Stick to actual behavior rather than attitudes. You have no idea what someone is thinking or feeling. So address what you see, not what you presume.
  5. Don’t bookend your criticism with compliments. Praise should be a separate conversation. The old, “Start with a compliment and end with a compliment” practice from the 1980’s is old and outdated. Veteran employees see it coming a mile away and tune out. Furthermore, pairing the two constantly makes any praise you give later weaker.
  6. Make all positive and negative feedback part of a regular routine. This helps make it expected behavior from you, rather than a dreaded encounter.
  7. Own the feedback. Even if you’re delivering feedback related to a company policy or procedure, use sentences that start with “I.” If an employee sees that you aren’t fully committed, he or she can easily rationalize ignoring the feedback.
  8. Don’t discuss pay and promotions in conjunction with negative feedback (as with yearly evaluations).
  9. Be specific about what you want done and why. What will future behavior look like?

Everyone wants feedback. Yes, it’s easier for managers to deliver praise and recognition, but employees need and appreciate well-delivered, well-timed corrective feedback.

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