How To Give Negative Feedback

April 27, 2016

by Ravi Raman

negative feedback

“To be adult in relationship is not to be conflict-free. It’s to resolve conflicts mindfully.” – David Richo (via Reboot)

Do you enjoy giving others critical feedback?

Do you get excited at the prospect of being the bearer of bad news?

Chances are, if you are like the vast majority of humans on the planet, you do not enjoy being the bearer of bad news.

It doesn’t take a research study to prove this point. If you have ever been in the position of having to have a serious “talk” with someone – an employee, a child, a business partner – you know how tough it can be.

Now, let’s flip the question around:

Do you enjoy receiving critical feedback?

Again, your stomach probably turns into knots just thinking about it!

We’ve all had the experience of being told we did something “wrong” or weren’t “good enough.” It does not feel good.

Lastly, let’s frame the scenario and the questions differently.

I’d like you to imagine something. Assume that you are going about your job just like you normally do. You have been doing this job for a while and have always assumed that you are doing just fine. More than just fine, you think you are doing great! In fact, your boss praises your work every now again. Your workers seem to enjoy working with you.

However, there is a catch.

While you think that you are doing great, it turns out that everyone is being nice and avoiding telling you what they think. Your boss doesn’t enjoy making people upset and is avoiding giving you the coaching and direct message that things are not going well. Your work is sub-par compared to your peers. Management doesn’t think you are up to snuff. Everyone is just being nice and not saying anything. After all, they think, you’ll find out when your annual review and bonus allotment comes around anyway so why should they say something now?

In this scenario, would you have preferred to hear the bad news from the get-go – blunt and unadulterated?

Of course, you would! You are not alone. While no one enjoys giving bad news, everyone enjoys receiving it when it is reflective of their performance on the job.




How To Give Negative Feedback

“Be fierce, Not ferocious” –

Being fierce means that you must commit to sharing the feedback when it is in the best interest of the person (and team and company) you are dealing with. Being fierce means being steadfast. Being fierce means not delaying in delivering the message ( a common mistake).

I’ve been in the unenviable position of needing to provide critical feedback on countless occasions as a manager and leader of various teams at Microsoft. I’ve had to fire an employee, explain why someone is not getting a bonus, promotion or a shot to lead the next big project.

When you work at a tech company full of high-caliber people, delivering bad news is especially tough. In many cases, the recipients have never failed at anything before (in their eyes). Knowing what it is like to deliver hard messages taught me a lot.

Here’s what I’ve learned that helped me get over my fears while ensuring that the critical message lands with the recipient in the best possible way.

Ask permission

Regardless of the message – good or bad – you need permission before the message can be received.

Some of you might be thinking, “I’m the boss, I don’t need permission to tell my employees something!”.

Think again.

If your goal is to deliver a message and have it land, the recipient needs to be open to receiving the message. They may not agree with the message. In fact, if the news is a surprise, they probably won’t. It doesn’t matter; you still need permission.

Asking permission involves using the power of questions to have the recipient of your message take some level of ownership in the conversation. Once the person agrees to have a conversation, you will find less resistance in the discussion.

For example, let’s suppose you just sat in a presentation that crashed in burn. The person who delivered it, let’s call her Sally, works for you and has stumbled several times over the past few months in similar situations. You finally decide it’s time to deal with the situation. Here is what you might say:

Hey Sally, I sat in on your presentation, and I do have some serious concerns. Can we meet this afternoon or tomorrow morning? I want to share my concerns, see if you agree, and If so, talk about what to do about it. OK?

Notice how this response invites the recipient into a conversation. It is clear that there are some concerns (never hedge when you have negative feedback!), but the details are saved until permission is granted (e.g. Sally agrees to the meeting).

Let’s move on to the next step.

Don’t hedge

Never, ever, give a feedback sandwich.

When you sugar-coat critical feedback with positives, it leaves the recipient confused and thinking that there is no issue. It also completely undermines the value of your opinion.

Always be very clear on what the issues and concerns are. If you have asked permission properly, it will be easier to do.

If you are a boss, you are not paid to be nice, you are supposed to be helpful! Being helpful means being clear about what is working and what isn’t, then solving the problem.

There is a misnomer in our culture today that saying that something is not working is akin to complaining and whining, that it is abdicating our responsibility to fix or tolerate the issue. There is also a false belief that being nice is good, and conflict is bad. The result is that tough conversations get ignored and swept under the rug, until circumstances make it unavoidable, at which time it is often too late to fix anything.

Conflict is not a bad thing. It is vital and necessary. The key is to navigate and handle conflict in a manner where everyone ends up better off than before, even if the outcome is dire for someone involved in the near-term (e.g. someone loses a job).

Part of being an adult (or a savvy child!) is our ability to have tough conversations, knowing that it is only through those actions that real progress and breakthrough results can occur.

When you have something important to say, it is vital that you say it. Furthermore, if you are the “boss”, it is more than important, it is your job! If you aren’t ready and willing to deliver critical feedback effectively, you either need to work with a coach to teach you how, or you shouldn’t be the boss.

Get the facts

Let’s take a crazy example.

Suppose you notice that a partner in your small business is stealing from you. There are thousands of dollars missing from the bank account of the company that should clearly be there. You’ve done your homework and are convinced that your partner is the culprit.

In this scenario, you might think that confronting your partner with unabashed confidence and accusation would be appropriate.

You would be wrong.

Consider this. Is there a possibility (even .001%) that you are missing some critical piece of information that would explain the entire situation? Is it possible that your partner did do something “wrong”, but made the mistake out of ignorance, not malice?

Blind spots by their very nature are unseen until after-the-fact. We are all victims of blind spots as individuals, teams and as companies.

What if your blind spot is causing you to overlook a key piece of data? For example, instead of stealing the money, what if your partner forgot to make a deposit of funds, or didn’t close the sale you thought she closed or….

Regardless, even if you do have all the facts, it is crucial that you hold some clear space to allow any additional data to get thrown on the table. If the data doesn’t emerge, then you will be in an absolute position to take corrective action.

If you don’t get the facts first, you run the risk of making a decision based on incorrect data, faulty assumptions and even more importantly – not allowing the recipient of the critical feedback to take ownership and responsibility for the mess.

After getting the facts, if the person cannot disagree with the issue or explain what’s going on, they are in essence agreeing that they were in the wrong. Once they agree with the problem, you can then move forward with correction action.

Here’s an example of how to phrase this during a feedback meeting (after you have asked for permission to share the concerns and the recipient agrees):

Hi Sally, I have several serious concerns based on what I’ve observed in your last few presentations. I am going to go through these concerns, and highlight what they are and why they are an issue. I want to make sure that I’m not missing anything, and that I am not causing any of these problems to happen. Once we agree on the concerns, we will talk about what to do about it. Make sense?

….then go through the concerns.

Notice how I am explicitly leaving a slight “crack in the door” open to ensure that I get all the facts, and am not missing anything vital, before addressing the concerns head-on.

As you proceed through the conversation, make sure that if you very clear on what is being said by the other party. Ask questions to ensure there is abundant clarity. For example:

  • Do I understand you correctly that…?
  • Did I paraphrase what you said correctly?
  • Is this what you said…“….”?

Do it often, erring on the positive

Establish a process for giving and receiving feedback. It makes everyone’s lives easier and will radically improve your team’s performance.

However, feedback sessions are not therapy sessions! They must be structured properly and be an excuse/complaint-free zone. The purpose of feedback is only to get the facts and generate learning.

The way to make the process of giving critical feedback easier and more effective for both you (the boss) and the recipient (the other person), is to set up a consistent practice of giving feedback. The more often you do it, and the easier it is to take corrective action and also not take the feedback personally. Like any skill, with regular practice, you (and the recipients) will learn how to take the comments to heart without being reactive.

If you are working with a team or a partner in your company, decide on a regular rhythm for giving and receiving feedback. It might be bi-weekly, monthly or quarterly. I recommend not waiting longer than three months. For a team that works in close cooperation together, monthly feedback works great. It can be 1:1 or as a team, and can be done swiftly once you get the hang of it.

The format for ongoing feedback should be slightly different from the method I outline above for addressing feedback given in a “crisis” situation. Continuous feedback must have positive and negative feedback, biased towards more positive feedback.

While the old lore that we need 5 pieces of positive feedback to counter-act 1 piece of negative feedback has come into question, it is true that negative feedback stands out in people’s minds. You want your team to be lifted up by the feedback process and not deflated, therefore, make sure you have plenty of positives highlighted.

After all, your if your team is working well together, that should be celebrated!

My favorite ongoing feedback method

I learned a particular method I’d like to share with you. I learned it through my many years teaching yoga. All the teachers at the studio I taught at were invited to take fellow teachers’ classes, and then conduct honest feedback sessions with them – sharing both the good aspects of the class and the areas for improvement. This regular rhythm of feedback helped teachers learn and grow, and become impervious to adverse emotional reaction to critical comments.

For example, at Microsoft, I used to conduct post-mortems with my team for any project that was completed (at sometimes at key milestones along the way). Even when projects went spectacularly well, just saying “you did great!” isn’t helpful. No learning comes from unilateral and generic praise.

Instead, I would have the project lead write down their answers to the following questions, in addition to myself answering them based on my observations (as the boss). Then, we would discuss the answers.

  1. What went well?
  2. What would be even better?

My experience is that it works best to ask your employee or partner to share their feedback first. Then, share your comments. Over time, this will allow the employees to identify their areas for improvement. Most of the time, they will be spot-on in their assessment, particularly if you have a regular habit of doing these feedback sessions.

That’s it!

This habit of giving balanced feedback helps everyone grow (including the boss!) and nips issues in the bud before they have a chance to grow into a mess that needs drastic corrective action.


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