Long ago, I received an especially confusing piece of negative feedback:
“Remember three or four months ago at that event? You did something wrong. I can’t remember what it was exactly, but I remember that it wasn’t good.”
I was baffled and didn’t gain much from the conversation.
What I did learn was that getting comfortable with giving effective negative feedback can be a challenge for managers, new and old alike.
Often, the main hurdle is a concern about discouraging or demotivating your employee. To combat this initial concern, put yourself in their shoes. Would you want to be told you were doing something wrong, or would you rather keep doing it?
Still, constructive criticism needs to be thoughtful to avoid negative consequences, but it’s important to remember that you work with adults that can take constructive criticism and use it to grow. As long as you trust that you are hiring mature professionals, you can safely brush this concern aside.
Beyond the fear of derailing an employee's progress, delivering negative feedback is much like delivering any other message. Ideally, it should be a part of a calm conversation. Your message should be timely, specific and direct. Finally, you should follow up to confirm the message was received.
Stay Calm & Don’t Speculate
The quickest way to lose credibility with criticism is to deliver it in a loud and angry way. If you’re yelling, the person getting yelling at is likely to lose the message and tune you out. On the other hand, talking with calm confidence projects that you’re being thoughtful, which is much easier to receive and understand. Practicing what you are going to say in advance can also help you deliver the message confidently.
Further, you might find that an angry reaction to a behavior is driven by speculation about what might have caused your employee to act a certain way. Did they come to a meeting unprepared because they don’t respect you? Did they miss a deadline because they don’t care about their work?
Ultimately, it’s hard to predict the causes behind a poor performance, and typically the real reason is never as bad what you imagined it to be. Unless you’ve been burned by the employee before, it’s often more beneficial to start a conversation with your employee about what went wrong, and offer advice on how to overcome the problems in the future.
Be Timely, Direct & Specific
First and foremost, the feedback needs to be timed as closely to the behavior as possible while the event is fresh in everyone’s mind. This ensures that your employee best understands what they did wrong.
Next, get to the point. A good rule of thumb is to get right into the issue in the first sentence of your conversation, “I want to talk to you about…” Don’t confuse your message by mixing it with initial words of encouragement. Focus on the behavior and try to get to the root of the problem.
For example, “I want to talk to you about being prepared for a client meeting. At this morning’s meeting, you didn’t come prepared and had trouble fielding questions and sorting through your notes. What do you think held you back from putting your best foot forward this time?”
This highlights the issue, adds detail with specific behaviors, and opens up the discussion with a question to gets them involved in working on a solution. Once the conversation has started, focus on providing actionable advice – what can they do differently in the future to get better?
The most important result of your conversation is to ensure that your employee understood your criticism and the next steps. To this end, you might ask them to restate the next steps at the conclusion of the meeting. You might also want to send a follow up email outlining the discussion.
Afterwards, make a note to check in a couple weeks down the road to see how things are going. Since professional growth is an ongoing process, additional guidance or kudos may be useful to further drive home the point.
With some practice, giving constructive criticism doesn’t need to be uncomfortable. In fact, it’s a vital part of being a manager of a high performing team. What are your tips for delivering effective negative feedback?