Do Employees Want Negative Feedback?

Yes. The answer is yes.

The Negative Feedback Divide

First, a quick clarification of terms. When we say negative feedback we’re talking about: suggestions for improvement, discussions of new and better ways to do things, and pointing out things that were done in a less than optimal way.

The types of communications we’re not including are: general expressions of dissatisfaction, negative characterizations or reprimands.

The problem with negative feedback is the divide between the number of managers who tend to avoid it and the number of employees who would like to receive it.

The leadership consulting firm Zegner/Folkman did a survey of close to one thousand individuals. They asked a few simple questions about giving and receiving feedback. As expected a large percentage of managers said they tended to avoid giving negative feedback. The surprising finding was when they asked employees about receiving negative feedback...57% of respondents said they preferred negative feedback over positive feedback. Over half of people not only wanted negative feedback, they wanted it more than positive feedback.

Even more amazing 92% agreed with the statement “Negative feedback, if delivered appropriately, is effective at improving performance.”

Why Your Employees Crave Negative Feedback

An employee who wants negative feedback, cares about their success and wants to grow.

Most of us want to be better, and we want advice on how to get there. Just look at the top selling non-fiction books on Amazon. The week I checked the #1 book offered “A counterintuitive approach to living a good life.” The #2 book offered “A scientifically proven approach to changing your life - for good.” In total, 9 of the top 20 books were offering some type of advice to help people improve their lives. The advice ranged from loving your spouse better, to principles for managing life and business, to winning friends and influencing people, to escaping addiction. There was even a book with advice on how to stop always wanting to be better!

The demand that sends these books to the top of the charts is the same demand that drove the results of the Zegner/Folkman study. People want to be better and they want help getting there.

Why Aren’t Managers Giving Employees What They Want?

Zegner/Folkman presented their data as if the answer was so simple. It was almost as if they were saying, “It’s ok managers, your employees want negative feedback, you don’t need to worry about giving it.” But is it really that easy?

I’m recently married, and my wife sometimes expresses a desire to get in even better shape than she already is (honey if you’re reading this, you’re in great shape!). She even sometimes expresses a desire for feedback and advice on how to do it. So one time I offered...

I can hear my fellow married folks yelling across the interwebs right now, “it’s a trap! Don’t do it!” I know, I know. We all need to learn these lesson on our own I guess.

“Maybe you could not eat dessert as much...”

Suffice it to say that I now have a VERY strong tendency to avoid negative feedback.

So, sure we all want negative feedback, we just don't take it very well. Managers know this too.

The other problem is that while we all generally want feedback to help us improve, we often don’t want to hear the specific feedback we end up getting. When was the last time you saw a diet book titled, “Stop Eating Too Much and Exercise More.”

Give Really Good Negative Feedback

So what do we know so far? There is almost universal agreement that negative feedback is a valuable tool for improving performance. Also, Employees want, at least theoretically, to receive feedback. The only thing holding us back is that moment when we give and receive the real feedback, that’s the part nobody likes.

The solution is that managers must get really good at giving negative feedback. We’ve written about this before, as have many others but there are a few key takeaways worth repeating.

Be a coach, not a critic - It is really easy to point out something that is wrong, it is much harder to show someone the path to what is right. Just letting someone know they’re doing something wrong is not good feedback. So position yourself to be an employee's coach, not their critic.

Don’t get emotional - If you’re uptight and stressed about giving feedback you’re going to make the person on the other side of the table uptight about receiving it.

Engage around solutions - No one is buying books from Amazon titled “What I Think Is Wrong With You.” People want solutions and they want to be part of finding those solutions.

Respect individual preferences - As we’ve already said, people want feedback. So try asking them how they’d like to receive it. Negative feedback is not about managers getting something off their chest, it is about employees learning and improving, so respect and accommodate what your employees need to be most successful.

Negative feedback is hard, but everyone is already in agreement that it is important. Invest some time in getting good at it—your employees will thank you.