How to Deliver Negative Feedback

Are you conflict-averse? Many of us think we are. And the topic has certainly been one of interest to researchers in recent months. As reported in The Washington Post in December, a University of Auckland study suggested that conflict-averse people are happier out of the spotlight and far from controversy. Perhaps it is not surprising then that people who are conflict-averse tend to bow out of the political process (according to ongoing research being conducted at William & Mary) – not great for a democracy.

Conflict aversion spills over into the executive suite, too. As reported recently in Harvard Business Review:

“A stunning majority (69%) of managers surveyed said that they’re often uncomfortable communicating with employees. [And] over a third (37%) of the managers said that they’re uncomfortable having to give direct feedback about their employees’ performance if they think the employee might respond negatively to the feedback.”

More than a third of managers shrinking from uncomfortable conversations with direct reports? Two-thirds fearing communicating with employees?  That’s a significant problem that could be detrimental to moving an organization’s mission forward.

The good news is that if you’re a manager with constructive criticism to deliver, communicating that message to a direct report doesn’t have to be painful. Considering the stakes for your organization, it’s important to take your time and get it right.  In our view, the best way to do so is to focus on three things:

1) Hear them out first. Allow your employee to provide their perspective on the situation and be an empathetic listener.  As Stephen Covey has famously said: “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” Listening without understanding is the fastest way to lose your employee’s trust. And there’s more than one reason to show your employee you want to understand where they’re coming from:  A global study by Zenger/Folkman of 3,875 people who’d received negative or redirecting feedback found that “those who felt strongly that their managers listened to them rated them high on their ability to give honest feedback.”

2) Help the employee diagnose the problem, especially if a challenge area is hard to define. The first step in solving a problem is identifying it, and in the process you are coaching your employee to build their own problem-solving skills for “next time”.  At the same time, don’t assume your employee doesn’t realize there is a problem with his or her performance. That same Zenger/Folkman study asked people if they were surprised or had not known already about the problem that was raised … [and] 74% indicated that they had known and were not surprised.

3) Empower the employee by reminding them that learning from your mistakes is where leadership can bloom. It’s not a question of if you’ll make a mistake, because everyone does at some point. What’s important is that your employee learns from the feedback that you give them.

So whether you identify as conflict-averse or not, as a manager you really have no other choice: having open and healthy lines of communication with your employees, especially when they make mistakes, is critical to the long-term survival of your organization.