How To Give a Negative Performance Review: 6 Communication Principles and +21 Example Phrases
Feedback is about as powerful in business as it is in rock and 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.”
One of the easiest ways to improve performance management is through the simple act of communicating better. In this article, we'll share tips and examples of how to give negative feedback to improve performance in your organization.
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?
That's right, example A.
Words matter, plain and simple. Let’s look at some ways to make feedback more effective 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 to focus on the job, not the person.
Chances are, you've heard this before. You can find this advice on business blogs and from best-selling authors.
So why are so many of today's employees disengaged and ready to walk out the door?
The 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 of your managers are clear about removing hard adjectives or character-related judgments from their feedback.
For the examples below, 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 even though 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?
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.
As managing partner and leadership expert Jennifer Porter put it, feedback should be “behavioral and specific” as well as “factual, not interpretive.”
What does this look like? A manager saying, “You’re doing great!” isn't all that helpful.
But a manager that says, “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 companies like Deloitte have already done it (and saved themselves a ton of time in the process).
- Since we’ve added you to the team, everybody looks happier and we’ve seen an engagement bump among your teammates.
- 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.
- 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.
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 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 our organization is in helping us succeed.
Questions are a great way to open up a discussion on how to move forward while letting the employee lead the way. And honestly, many managers 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!).
- How can I help you do (even) better next time?
- Is there anything that you or your team needs that you’re not already getting?
- 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 be complacent.
Ayelet also found that the reverse was true. When somebody 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:
- You did great work on reworking the landing page last month. How can we start transferring that to the rest of the funnel?
- 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:
- 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?
- 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 feedback and advice more meaningful, in addition to humanizing the manager.
Learning technologist Chris Gaudreau stated, “Sharing personal experiences makes the feedback feel more authentic and meaningful.”
Sharing a personal experience is a great way to show empathy, demonstrate experience and build a personal connection. And given how awkward performance reviews can get, that absolutely matters.
But when sharing personal experiences, managers should be sure to avoid the following:
- Telling too long of a story or experience
- Making the feedback session about themselves
- Sharing stories that are irrelevant or unhelpful
- 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.
- This reminds me of a situation an old team member of mine got into once.
- 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.
So how can a manager stay diplomatic in delivering negative feedback?
These communication principles can help:
- 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.
- Never make it personal. You want the employee to spend their time focusing on the job, not doubting their worth as a person.
- Last quarter, you found great samples for our surveys, but we double-checked your math and found mistakes in several figures.
- Before we talk about areas where I think you can improve, what are some areas you’d like to improve on?
- 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?
- 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.
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 are different. These 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 how you choose to deliver negative feedback, stay true to these principles and your employees will thank you.