How to give negative feedback constructively

Without destroying the other person's self esteem

In general business management knowing how to give negative feedback constructively is an important skill, but in change initiatives this is critical. The restructuring, refocusing and re-engineering is only the start.

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As business leader in a change management environment, you face the equally if not more difficult challenge of getting the staff to deliver your new vision and achieve the revenue forecasts. So this is all about translating vision and strategy into actionable steps.

The ways in which people process information are very different, their motivations are different as is the way they interpret life.

Most people are not blessed with the capacity to turn a highlevel vision into an actionable plan. They need to have it explained to them and broken down into actionable steps.They will make mistakes and still get things wrong, and this is where knowing how to give negative criticism constructively is so important.

The keys to constructive feedback

The absolute key to how to give negative feedback constructively and without destroying the other person's self esteem - is to separate the behaviour from the person. So you are addressing the behaviour and not the person.

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Ken Blanchard was very hot on this 25 years ago in his "One Minute Manager" series of books. He also said: "catch them doing something right- and praise them".

This is other key to this and that underpins the first point - "earn the right" to make the negative feedback by doing so in a context of frequent and regular positive feedback.

Over the years I have seen senior managers and directors issue edicts and criticise their staff from a distance and it always demotivates and causes resentment.

In line management, I have many times seen [and in the distant past experienced] managers dispensing negative feedback - and worst of all doing so behind people's backs.

I recall a situation about 25 years ago when I was a young business development manager at Dun & Bradstreet, and one of my team was underperforming badly. Fortunately I had just read "The One Minute Manager" on how to give negative feedback and decided to put it into practise. As I outlined the performance issue I could see the woman I was talking to getting more and more resentful, defensive and tearful. Then, I will never forget how her expression changed completely and she smiled as I said "...but Annabel, I do want you to realise that I am not criticising you as a person..." and the whole mood of our exchange changed.

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3 Guiding principles

There are 3 guiding principles in how to give negative feedback:

  1. Clarity - Firstly, be very clear what you are seeking to achieve e.g. is this a prelude to job change or sacking, or are you seeking improvement, are you seeking to discover what may be a much bigger and more widespread issue?

    Secondly, establish as quickly as possible whether you are dealing with a resource problem, a training problem or an attitude problem.

  2. Speed - People have short memories and it is important to link the feedback to the event that gave rise to it becoming necessary.
  3. Consistency - If you have set a clear performance standard - you must ensure that people meet that standard. Letting things slide because you don't want to confront the problem or feel sorry for the person is poor management and helps no-one - least of all the person with the problem.

It should go without saying that you need to have your emotions totally under control. You don't want to critique someone else's actions when you are angry or upset as you are likely to say something you don't really mean or to react poorly to something that is said to you.

Also, you should do this in a private place. No one wants to receive negative feedback in front of other people - although sometimes it is unavoidable, but that should always be a last resort.

These are the practical steps that I usually follow and have found to be effective in how to give negative feedback:

  • Talk about the person's specific performance issues and describe the results and effects of the person's performance.
  • Describe the expected standards of performance and be specific with occurrences and instances that illustrate the problematic behaviour.

  • Determine the cause of the performance issues in terms of training, skills, knowledge,motivation, or any possible external factors involved

  • Ask the person for their solution(s) to improve the situation?
  • Discuss the solution with the person.
  • Agree on specific actions to be done and a time frame to implement them.
  • Arrange for another meeting in the future to track the progress/results of the solution.

Further Resources

Process theories of motivation - Personal needs drive behaviour

Employee motivation techniques - How to achieve peak performance

Theory U: leading from the future as it emerges

Open Space Technology - How to create inspired meetings

Toxic leadership - How to spot it and how to avoid it

Managing Personal Change - Resources HERE

Return from "How to give negative feedback" to Inspirational Motivation

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