How to give negative feedback to your employees

Positivity has become something of a cult the past few years. Like political correctness and the ‘#gratitude’ craze, it comes from a good place – but is meaningless if performed by rote, rather than discovered through respect and mindfulness.

Negativity is by no means a healthy attitude, but point-by-point identifying of negative trends within an atmosphere of constructive support can help to identify means of improvement that might be overlooked by those wary to dwell on failure or mistakes. If you have an employee who is underperforming or plain out of line, restricting yourself to positive discourse can severely limit your ability to address and rectify the problem. But how can you deliver negative feedback without overstepping the mark?

You can take some of the burden off your shoulders by opening a feedback session with a period of self-review. Giving your employee a voice will make them less likely to feel victimized by the remainder of the session. They may already be aware of the issue you want to confront, or they may unearth the issue or the reasons behind it when given free reign to talk about their performance. Heck, they might even confess to something you hadn’t picked up on!

It’s likely their self-review will not be in sync with your own opinion, but listen to their side of the story, and use questions rather than statements to try to get a better understanding where they’re coming from. Be prepared to change your opinion or your plan of action in response to what you learn. Hopefully, your air of dignified humility will rub off on your troubled colleague.

That said, you should enter the room with a plan – even if it might end up changing. Have specific examples of their mistakes available, and relate them to concrete work issues and statistics rather than on personality traits. Don’t fall back on the classic positive-negative-positive pattern unless you really have something positive to say. The idea of sandwiching negative feedback between positive comments is well-known today, and you will lose trust if you are not completely sincere in all your points.

Finish up your feedback with some direct modes of action. Targets, behaviors and techniques are all more powerful – and trackable – than “be better” or “work harder”. And before you go, ask for feedback on your feedback. Make sure that the reasons for your criticism have been understood, that your employee knows the path forward, and that they think you’ve been fair. This way you can leave them feeling empowered, make sure you’re not missing anything, and build on your feedback technique for next time.

These approaches are all most effective in a workplace that has a healthy feedback culture. Holding regular review sessions is a great way to check in with your staff and keep the dialogue open. If they understand that negative – but constructive – feedback is part and parcel of the workplace, and they are accustomed to giving and receiving it, the process will be much smoother when a serious problem arises.

Your first such meeting can be dedicated to sharing the art of feedback. In a healthy company, not only is nobody afraid to speak up, but each employee recognizes the value of their ideas and opinions on everyone else and the business as a whole. It can take a while for this atmosphere to flourish, so don’t rush it – start slowly, and build the process over the first few weeks. Hopefully your crew will come to value the empowerment that comes with shared responsibility, and to feel accountable to the team and not just the boss. Let them know the rules and make sure it’s a safe place for people to be honest about negative trends or incidents from which the group can learn. Arguments might occur, especially at first, but these can be healthy too – rather than stamping them out, try instead to arbitrate and help your colleagues to figure things out between them. This can truly strengthen your squad.

This new guide provides clear steps to establishing that culture of feedback, and ideas on how to handle those difficult moments when backhanded compliments are no longer cutting it and negative feedback is called for. Learn these ideas well, and your experience of negative feedback is likely to produce positive results.

G. John Cole is a digital nomad and freelance writer. Specialising in leadership, digital media and personal growth, his passions include world cinema and biscuits. A native Englishman, he is always on the move, but can most commonly be spotted in Norway, the UK and the Balkans.

Image: Pexels