Giving people negative feedback is tricky. You don't want to hurt feelings or come across too harsh, but at the same time you need to make your point and ensure that poor behavior isn't repeated.
Here are eight ways to reduce the sting.
1. Speak quickly
Most brains can only be open-minded for the first two minutes. After that point, they switch to the analytical mode. If I can get the most important piece of feedback through in the first two minutes, I avoid the inevitable listening shut down. Before the scheduled feedback delivery, I also write down important points so I can get through them quickly. Criticism has less of an effect if prolonged. After delivering feedback, I give them a moment to think about it and ask questions.
2. Avoid the sandwich
Awhile ago I learned about a “feedback sandwich” (delicious!) in which one would say something positive, then say something critical, and then say something nice again. This sounds good in theory. However, in practice, the positive pieces sound contrived, and only makes the agony last longer. My recommendation? Get the criticism over and done with in as few words as possible. There will be time for positive feedback when the problem is solved.
3. Be specific
Be as specific as you can in your critiques. I avoid giving the recipient criticism like, “This could be better,” or “Ugh.” I find it better to explain what exactly needs to be worked on. Feeling personally attacked or not understanding what exactly the issue is puts people on the defensive. Correction can be difficult when working with a defensive attitude.
4. Offer improvements
The goal of criticism should be to help someone make improvements. While giving specific feedback is a great first step on the way to fixing the problem, we’ll still need to figure out how to fix it. I don’t just point out the mistakes in their work, I give specific suggestions for improvement. But just like in the paragraph above, I’m specific in my suggestions.
5. Be cool
Before giving negative feedback I always take a deep breath and check my emotions. This is particularly important if the mistake was huge, or affected you personally. Going in with a hot head may get you short term fixes, but taking time for a reasonable chat can help find underlying issues and even better fixes.
6. Externalize the criticism
Keep the recipient of criticism as separate as you can from their mistake. Criticize their actions, and not the person. Criticizing the specific activity makes my feedback much less hurtful and much more effective. Just because I may have made a mistake, I am not an idiot.
7. Frame feedback as growth
My favorite method for delivering negative feedback is to frame the feedback as growth. Asking the question, "See yourself five years from now in your career, have you advanced? Do you have better skills than you do now?” Most everyone wants to grow in their careers. Most everyone wants to feel important. Framing feedback as growth can put the positives spin on criticism that doesn’t feel like pandering.
8. Use the magic question
When I’m giving negative feedback for what I perceive to be a major character problem, I use the magic question. “Are you aware...?” This question can help cover the worst offenses.
- “Are you aware that people are perceiving you as harsh when you yell?”
- “Are you aware that could be received as irritating?”
- “Are you aware that the dress you’re wearing isn’t promoting a polished image?”
By asking the magic question, I allow the recipient of the criticism a way out. And then it’s a team effort, figuring out how to move forward.
As a manager, it’s tough to give feedback. Many don’t bother in effort to be popular—but offering honest feedback can make your team stronger. Use these tips to help make the feedback easier to give.