How To Give Negative Feedback

We’re going to break down the best ways to give constructive criticism and negative feedback so that you can both grow as professionals. 
negative feedback

How To Give Negative Feedback

As a leader in your company, there are times when you need to give negative feedback—tricky and uncomfortable as it may be. Giving negative feedback might not feel like an important career skill, but it’s a valuable part of growing both as an individual and a professional. 

How so? Let’s say someone in your organization isn’t performing at the level you’d like them to. You could simply let it slide and avoid the anxiety of a confrontation gone wrong… but then nothing changes, and you’re stuck with less-than-ideal results.

Worse, your job might even be impacted by the situation. How might it look if a senior executive knows that you spotted a potentially serious issue with an employee and said nothing?

Feeling anxious? That’s okay. We’re going to break down the best ways to give constructive criticism and negative feedback so that you can both grow as professionals. 

Giving negative feedback in 5 easy steps 

1. Get their story

Do you want to know the number one reason why giving negative feedback often goes so wrong? Here it is:

People who give constructive criticism often don’t fully understand the situation they’re dealing with before diving into it. 

What do we mean by this? Simply put, most people who give negative feedback give it far too early—before they’ve even understood the scenario at hand. 

Instead of spotting a problem and immediately jumping into action, it’s better to get all the facts first. If there’s a “problem person” in question, your best bet is to get curious about them, their story, and their personal performance.

For instance, if this person is someone who’s never had an issue with reaching deadlines before, but is now routinely missing them, your first question could be: what’s changed? Is there some other project at work that’s eating up all of their time? Are they putting out fires for another employee, leading them to be late with their own work? Is there a situation at home that’s demanding more of their time and energy right now?

Depending on the answer, your feedback is going to vary widely. On the other hand, if you don’t ask anything before jumping to a solution, then you’re probably not going to get the results you’re after.

As you start to get their story, ask questions like:

  • What’s going on in your life right now? 
  • What’s your bandwidth? 
  • What’s getting in your way?
  • Do you have all the resources you need?
  • Are you satisfied with your role and responsibilities?
  • Is there something missing?

These are just starter questions, of course. Digging further and asking follow-up questions will help you get all the facts before giving guidance.

Active listening is key during this stage. Encourage your colleague to express themselves openly without fear of judgment. Ask probing questions to gain a deeper understanding of the situation from their point of view. By doing so, you demonstrate compassion and respect, setting the stage for constructive feedback.

2. Give feedback like a coaching session

Negative feedback only has to be negative if it’s seen that way! Instead of framing your conversation with someone as a “negative feedback” or “constructive criticism” in your mind, treat it instead like a coaching session.

Contrary to a performance review or reprimand, a coaching session is about helping someone discover what’s working for them, and what’s not. Instead of putting them down, coaching sessions are about lifting them up. They’re about finding out what someone does want, and helping them move toward that, rather than making them afraid of what they don’t want.

In a professional setting, this looks like offering up opportunities for improvement instead of threats for failure. 

Ask them: what would it take to help you thrive at this company? How can I help you live up to the best version of your professional self? What do you really value, and are those values in accordance with your current performance? 

Most of all, ask: how can we work as a team to ensure you’re as happy, healthy and at ease as possible?

This might sound like “gentle managing,” but it’s not. Instead, it’s about taking steps that will actually improve someone’s performance—rather than scaring them into “shaping up,” which isn’t really effective in the long-term, and breeds lasting resentment that can negatively impact your company culture. 

Note: when you’re coaching someone, ensure that your feedback is directed towards the behavior rather than the person. Emphasize that it's the action that needs improvement, not their character or worth as an individual, and that those actions are based on beliefs rather than personal flaws or failings. This distinction prevents the feedback from being perceived as a personal attack and promotes a constructive dialogue.

3. Dig to the root of the issue

You’ve got their story, you have all the information you need, and you’re ready to have a coaching session with them to provide constructive feedback… now what?

Now we want to pinpoint the deepest, most important issue that’s preventing the person in question from performing up to par. Sure, the “main” problem might look like chronic tardiness or poor work ethic, but that’s not really the issue—it’s a symptom of the actual cause.

Ask deeper, more insightful questions to get to the root of the issue and uncover limiting beliefs. Maybe they thought that if they asked you to clarify the task at hand, you’d view them poorly. Maybe their fear of failure was so great that it felt easier to procrastinate. Maybe they have imposter syndrome and feel underqualified. 

Once you know the underlying belief, you can begin to challenge it. 

4. Tell them what you’d rather have

Now it’s time to give some guidance. You’ve identified what’s not working and why it’s not working—it’s your turn to clearly and succinctly tell them what you’d rather have instead. Tell them what you want!

Telling someone what you’d rather have moves the heart of the conversation toward what you DO want to see out of them, instead of focusing on how disappointed you are for getting results that you DON’T want. 

For instance, if an employee's reports lack clarity and coherence, you could say, "I would love to see your reports become more concise and structured. It might even be useful to organize all your information in bullet points and include a summary at the beginning so that we can move through this info quickly and get onto more exciting work.”

Offering opportunities demonstrates your support and commitment to an employee’s development. It also empowers them to take ownership of their growth journey and make tangible improvements without relying on you to “boss them around.” 

5. Create a culture where feedback is championed

On top of delivering negative feedback effectively, it's just as important to cultivate a culture where feedback is welcomed and embraced. This involves nurturing a growth mindset among team members, encouraging them to view feedback as an opportunity for learning and development rather than a critique of their abilities.

How does this help, exactly? For starters, by integrating feedback into the fabric of everyday interactions, you remove the stigma associated with it and create an environment where continuous improvement is valued.

What’s more, normalizing frequent feedback actually lessens the amount of overall feedback you have to give.

How does giving MORE feedback create an environment with LESS feedback, you ask? Because when you’re always giving feedback—and good feedback, at that—you solve small problems before they become big problems. Instead of doing entire overhauls of different departments, you’re dealing with individual issues that start small and stay that way. In essence, you’re putting out a fire before the flames have spread to the whole house. 

So how do you get people onboard with a “feedback culture,” exactly? Start by making feedback a regular part of team meetings, performance evaluations, and project reviews. 

Moreover, lead by example by being open to receiving feedback yourself. Demonstrating a willingness to listen to others' perspectives and make necessary adjustments sets a positive precedent for others to follow. Emphasize that feedback is a two-way street.

Give negative feedback with confidence

By coaching the person in question, getting their story, identifying what isn’t working, and telling them what you’d rather have, you’re creating the kind of workplace culture where growth and learning are front and center—which leads to better results for everyone involved. 

Remember, effective feedback is not about criticism for criticism's sake, but about nurturing potential and driving improvement. Mastering this skill will not only benefit the people you work with, but also contribute to YOUR overall success as a leader.

Need personalized guidance on how to be the best coach for your team? We’ll walk you through it. Sign up for a free coaching call and pick our brains about the best ways to support and manage your crew.

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