How To Give a Negative Performance Review - 6 Communication Principles and +21 Example Phrases

July 24, 2018

Feedback is about as powerful in business as it is in rock n’ roll.

And when managers do it right, they can help make their employees (and themselves) look like total rockstars. But beware. Hit the wrong note and you could see your employees sprinting for the exit faster than you can say, “we built this city.”

We recently put together an article explaining what a performance review should do. While some of these things should be accomplished through the actual structure of your reviews (i.e., how often you do them, how you handle the implementation and follow up, and so on), another surefire way to improve your reviews is through the simple act of communicating better.

A simple example of why words matter

If you're at all skeptical about the power of words in employee performance reviews, take a minute to consider these two examples giving the same feedback with different phrases.

Example A: “Our last product had 56% more bugs than usual. What do you think we can do to ship a less buggy product next time?”

Example B: “You were much more careless with the last product and it was much buggier than normal. Find a way to fix it next time.”

Which one sounds more effective?

Words matter, plain and simple. Let’s look at some ways to make your feedback more effective, simply by hitting the right notes in your performance appraisals.

1. Focus on the job, not the person

If there is one key rule for delivering effective feedback, it's this:

Focus on the job, not the person.

Chances are, you've heard this before. You can find this advice on other business blogs and from best-selling authors, too. So why is it that so many of today's employees are disengaged and ready to walk out the door?

Bottom line: A person is so much more than their performance on the job. Any reasonable human being will resent being treated as anything less than what they are. Make sure you and all your managers are clear about removing hard adjectives or character-related judgments from their feedback. This is doubly important when giving women feedback, hard data shows women tend to get much more personality criticism than men.

For these examples, we paired a good and bad phrase together. This shows how a personal adjective you might be using can be easily replaced by job-related specifics. Notice that while the "Good" version feels softer, it actually gets the point across more clearly.


Bad: You’re too bossy and it's hurting team morale.

Good: Some of your team members have said that they would like more autonomy on projects.

Bad: You’re not very detail-oriented.

Good: I've seen some small errors in your client's accounts. Let's take a look at them together.

Bad: You’re not a smart enough on strategic thinker.

Good: We didn't hit our targets on our last campaign. What do you think we should do differently next time?


For more examples read "Why Employees Crave Negative Feedback"

2. Be specific

Here’s a common experience: You call a friend to talk for a while and after you go over a problem or two, you get some generic advice that you politely brush off and forget about a bit later.

From a friend or family member, that’s no problem. But we want more from our managers. We want specific, real feedback and next steps we can act on. Managing partner and leadership expert Jennifer Porter writes that feedback should be “behavioral and specific” as well as “factual, not interpretive.”

For example, a manager saying, “You’re doing great!” isn't all that helpful. A manager saying, “You’re doing great work by going out of your way to overhaul old systems and point out areas where we can improve!” becomes infinitely more helpful. Now the employee knows exactly what they did that was great and can do more of it in the future.

The manager can specify further with facts, saying, “Your work overhauling old systems has made IT’s lives so much easier. They’ve seen a 60% drop in troubleshooting requests!” The employee now knows that they did great, how they did great, and what doing great meant for the business.You can also apply this to the graded scales inside your reviews. Because, let's face it. Phrases like “From 1 to 10, rate this employee’s leadership/interpersonal/customer service skills” are pretty vague. If cutting or reworking these industry-standard questionnaires seems daunting, remember that best in class companies like Deloitte have already done it (and saved themselves a ton of time in the process).


  1. Since we’ve added you to the team, everyone’s looked happier and we’ve seen an engagement bump among your teammates.
  2. During our expansion, your suggestions were very helpful. In fact, the store you suggested to add in Montreal is outperforming some of our main branches already.
  3. While your advice is spot on, nearly half of your clients have told us they felt you weren’t clear about it in the early parts of the consultation.

Learn why we love advice from some people and hate it from others.

3. Consider questions over statements

Business Insider’s Careers Editor, Jacqueline Smith highlighted 17 great phrases bosses should say during performance reviews. 10 out of 17 were questions, or had a question in them.

Giving feedback can seem like the time to come out with hard statements, but in truth, we often want our performance reviews to be more than just reviews. On top of how we did, we want to know how we can get better and how invested you are in helping us succeed.

Questions are a great way to open up a discussion on how to move forward, while letting the the employee lead the way. And honestly, many managers, especially the ones further up the hierarchy, might not know how to address an issue better than an employee. Employees can provide valuable insight on the company, alerting managers to blind spots and nipping potential problems in the bud.

Finally, questions help create a culture of feedback and honesty. Asking questions about the company, the team, and even the management can let employees know that they aren’t the only ones trying to improve.

Astrophysicist Alan Duffy points out that powerful questions don’t have to be complex to be strong. Simple questions about the things going on around us can motivate BIG change (like Einstein’s theory of relativity big!). If you’re looking for more info on how to ask the right questions, we’ve got a full article on that topic, too.


  1. How can I help you do (even) better next time?
  2. Is there anything that you or your team needs that you’re not already getting?
  3. What do you really want improve on?

4. With positives, stick to process. With negatives, stick to progress.

Research from social psychologist Ayelet Fishbach at the University of Chicago found some fascinating connections between chasing goals and feedback. She found that when someone did something positive, focusing on the process helped keep them engaged with the goal, whereas focusing on the progress prompted them to rest on their laurels a bit.

Ayelet also found that the reverse was true. When someone did something negative, focusing on the losing process made them lose interest in the goal, while focusing on ways to move forward from the lack of progress helped keep their spark alive.

Examples for handling positives:

  1. You did great work on reworking the landing page last month. How can we start transferring that to the rest of the funnel?
  2. All of our clients were raving about your presentation. Let’s think of some ways we can keep that going for our next event in October.

Examples for handling negatives:

  1. I know you missed your sales target for this quarter, but that’s just this quarter. What are some new ideas we can focus on to get back on track?
  2. Customer surveys told us that they didn’t feel like you knew the product very well, when you master these new features, I think you’ll do really well.

5. Connect personally where you can

When an employee knows that their manager has been in their shoes before, it makes any feedback or advice more meaningful, while humanizing the manager.

Learning technologist Chris Gaudreau writes, “sharing personal experiences makes the feedback feel more authentic and meaningful.” While Chris is talking about teaching students, his advice can help anyone in a mentor or coaching role. Sharing a personal experience is a great way to show empathy, demonstrate experience and build a personal connection. Given how awkward performance reviews can get, that absolutely matters.

A couple quick caveats: Managers should avoid telling too long a story or making the feedback session about themselves. They should also double-check internally if the story is relevant and explain the link a little bit to make sure it's helpful.


  1. I ran into a problem just like this when I was starting out. Here's a great piece of advice from my then-boss that helped me a lot.
  2. This reminds me of a situation an old team member of mine got into once.
  3. This is a more common mistake than you might think. I’ve made it myself a couple times. Here’s how I stopped.

6. Get serious but don’t get mean

In hoping to help out an underperforming, high-potential employee, a manager might feel the pressure to get well, mean. That's a massive mistake.

There are plenty of examples in Hollywood of the over-the-top mentor who pushes a prodigy into excellence. But in reality, this approach is more likely going to end in a meltdown and some undesired turnover.

Research shows that we remember negative moments more strongly, though not more accurately, than positive ones. The real question is, how can a manager stay diplomatic in delivering negative feedback?

And the answer? Call on all these communication principles to help you out.

Connect personally to remind an employee that everyone makes mistakes, it’s how you recover that matters. Ask questions to get to the root cause and make the individual feel more at ease. Be specific and provide facts and examples with to help the employee understand the problem and accept that the feedback is fair.

And of course, never make it personal. You want the employee to spend their time focusing on the job, not doubting their worth as a person.


  1. Last quarter, you found great samples for our surveys, but we double-checked your math and found mistakes in several figures.
  2. Before we talk about areas where I think you can improve, what are some areas you’d like to improve on?
  3. You fell behind on some deadlines and that put some of our other employees in a crunch. How can we get your process to run a bit faster?
  4. Losing that client was unfortunate, but it happens to the best of us. Actually, it happened to me in a similar way. Here's what I learned.

If you've lost control of your emotions, you should hold your tongue. Here are three other times you should NOT give negative feedback.

Final Takeaways

These are just six principles to help guide you to a better conversation in your next performance review. Keep in mind that every review, employee and culture is different. This principles are grounded in research (as well as HR blood, sweat and tears). But how you use them to create and follow through on your own performance strategy is entirely up to you.

No matter which words you choose, stay true to the fundamentals and your employees will thank you.

Learn More About Negative Feedback

  1. The 5 Personalities on Every Team: And how to coach them
  2.  7 Questions Managers Should Ask Unhappy and Disengaged Employees
  3. Deliver Criticism Employees Appreciate
  4. Do Your Employees Want Negative Feedback?
  5. 4 Crucial Times NOT to give Feedback
Best Practices for Building a Performance Management Metrics Strategy
Continue Reading
360 Performance Review Process 2021 Guide
Continue Reading
Free 360 Employee Review Template
Continue Reading
360 Degree Feedback Software for Performance Reviews
Continue Reading
How Much Does Performance Management Software Cost?
Continue Reading
Free 90-Day Employee Performance Review Template
Continue Reading
Performance Management
Performance Management
Employee Reviews
Employee Reviews
14 Types of Performance Appraisals for 2021
Continue Reading
Employee Reviews
Employee Reviews
3 Types of Employee Review Questions
Continue Reading
Employee Reviews
Employee Reviews
How to Write a Self Review
Continue Reading
Employee Reviews
Employee Reviews
The Purpose of Peer Reviews in 360s
Continue Reading
Employee Reviews
Employee Reviews
3 Ways to Improve your Performance Review Forms
Continue Reading
Employee Reviews
Employee Reviews
A Manager's Guide to Performance Appraisal Meetings
Continue Reading