Turning Bad Into Good: How to Deliver and Handle Negative Feedback at Work
Posted by Eric Friedman
Most people don’t like to hear that they’re doing something wrong or need to improve, but in the workplace, all feedback—whether positive or negative—is crucial. When you get negative feedback, it’s important to take a breath and try not to react defensively. Instead, pay close attention to both the delivery of the feedback and your perception of it. Although it can be hard to take, criticism can be very helpful and is critical to professional development. Knowing where we have room to improve can guide us as we continue to grow in our careers.
Yet many managers and employees don’t know how to handle negative feedback, both from the giving and the receiving ends. This can lead to a breakdown in communication, in which employees feel demoralized and demotivated, while managers feel guilty and frustrated. What’s worse, when negative criticism is misconstrued, it can easily lead to decreased productivity among employees.
According to a recent survey by Zenger/Folkman, a leadership development consultancy, a significantly large number of respondents (57%) said they preferred to receive “corrective feedback,” while only 43% preferred praise/recognition. Furthermore, when asked what was most helpful in their career, an impressive 72% said they thought their performance would improve if their managers would provide corrective feedback. The survey also found that the way corrective feedback is given really matters—92% of the respondents agreed with the assertion: “Negative feedback, if delivered appropriately, is effective at improving performance.”
How to Deliver Negative Feedback
- Find the root of the problem. Before saying anything, try to find out why the employee’s performance is not up to par. There may be personal reasons, for example, someone could be going through a divorce or there could be illness or a recent death in the family. Knowing if something outside of work is affecting an employee’s performance can better guide your approach when you bring it up.
- Don’t vent. Having an employee who doesn’t perform as well as he or she could can be frustrating, but avoid venting when you talk to the employee. When things aren’t going well for your team, its easy to point fingers and lay blame. Try to leave your frustrations out of the conversation and focus only on the specifics of the employee’s performance.
- Come up with solutions together. The main point of delivering negative feedback should be to determine how to fix the issue. Be prepared before you breach the subject with possible solutions and ways to improve the situation. For instance, if an employee is missing his deadlines, suggest that you work together on developing a calendar with reminders that will help him get better organized and keep better track of his work.
- Do it in person. Everyone knows that criticizing someone’s performance tends to be a less-than-pleasant situation, but avoiding the conversation by delivering the message on the phone or via email is counterproductive. Talking with the employee in person shows that you respect her enough to tell her to her face, and gives you the opportunity to open a conversation about ways to improve.
- Avoid the sandwich. Some managers use the “sandwich method” to deliver negative feedback—starting the conversation with a positive comment, then giving the negative feedback and closing with another positive comment. The problem here is that you run the risk of confusing the issue. Trying to soften the blow by sandwiching it between positive comments can dilute the message. Instead, try to stay focused on the issue. Remember, that’s the whole point of having the conversation in the first place.
- Be timely. Finally, avoid letting negative comments pile up. Try to give all feedback—negative and positive—in a timely manner. If an employee is performing poorly, bring up the issue as soon as possible to give him a chance to correct it. Otherwise it may become compounded with other issues and lead to a situation to will be much more difficult to handle.
How to Receive Negative Feedback
- Be open to it. Nobody likes to hear they’re not performing as well as they should, but try to leave your personal feelings aside. Assume that your manager has good intentions of helping you improve, not that she’s being nit-picky or difficult.
- Clarify roles. Take the opportunity to clarify your role in the department and the company. This will help you better understand what is expected of you and what you should expect from your manager.
- Use it as a bonding opportunity. Having to talk about your performance can be tough, but it can also lead to a meaningful conversation with your manager. It can give you the opportunity to bond with him and better understand his position and where he’s coming from.
- Find mentorship. Similarly, you can take this opportunity to seek mentorship. A mentor can offer valuable guidance when your performance isn’t what it should be at work, and that can help you improve.
- Reflect on your work. Hearing criticism is no picnic, but it can lead you to think more in-depth about your work. Are you on the right track for your professional goals? Is this what you expected to be doing at this point in your career? Take this chance to reflect on your work performance and path.
- Show growth. Finally, when you receive negative feedback, show that you can learn from it and improve. Growing and improving from feedback lets your manager know that you care about performing well and about moving forward with the company.
Turning negative feedback into a positive situation is crucial to growing professionally. What are some ways in which you’ve handled giving or receiving negative feedback at your workplace?
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Eric Friedman is the founder and CEO of eSkill Corporation, a leading provider of Web-based skills testing for pre-employment and training. With academic degrees in Psychology and Business, and experience with both mature and expansion-stage company growth, Eric has focused on how best to hire and motivate team members to be the best they can be for their companies.