5 Essential Tips for Giving Negative Feedback as a Manager

In the dynamic landscape of professional interactions, the ability to provide constructive employee feedback is an indispensable skill. Let’s look at five crucial ways managers can successfully give feedback.

We’ll cover how delivering feedback is a thoughtful process that demands planning and consideration, how vital preparation is for conveying the right message, and how important time and place are for making your direct reports feel comfortable. We’ll also look at the value of being specific, compassionate, and constructive in your delivery. 

Given that “When people felt their leaders were more empathetic, 86% reported they are able to navigate the demands of their work and life”, sensitively conveying feedback will be your key to success.

Plan and prepare

Determine the what, why, and how. Consider the following: What are you trying to say, why is it essential to say it, and how exactly will you do it? What are you trying to achieve by having this conversation? How might your direct report respond? How might the feedback make them feel? Are they likely to understand and agree with your constructive criticism or think it’s unjustified?

Thinking empathetically and establishing the barriers to successfully giving negative feedback is an essential initial step. Think of giving feedback as a process rather than a one-off event. Doing this means you consider the gravity and importance of your words and make sure you’re not simply in a bad mood. It can be that without proper thoughts, your own emotions or preferences dictate what you say rather than the real reason behind the need to give feedback. 

Plus, knowing what you want to say and why it’s so necessary gives you a vital confidence boost because you know you’ve adequately thought about the need to initiate change. Knowing your motivations will really help you face difficult conversations. 

Timing is everything

Don’t wait for an already scheduled review to pop up (in 6 months' time!), and don’t suddenly put a meeting in the individual’s calendar that will undoubtedly evoke some difficult emotions. The best course of action is to have regular conversations with your team anyway, regardless of whether you’re giving negative feedback, celebrating someone’s achievements or merely sharing some new information. This way, the team knows you’re approachable, available, and holding space for their work issues, too. 

Don’t sit too long with negative feedback, either. If something happens today, preparing to tell someone in 7 weeks what they could’ve done differently is insensitive and uncomfortable for them, especially if there’s no opportunity to fix the mistake. Make sure to face the issue and devise a resolution as quickly as possible. This way, your direct reports know you’re efficient and effective when it comes to identifying problems and working to solve them. They’ll also know they can come to you (and count on you) when they have a problem.

Location, location, location

Choose a private place (or a one-on-one video call) for your meetings. You might have heard the phrase ‘raise in public, criticise in private.’ Well, that’s vital here. Proponents of it explain how “Public criticism tends to trigger a defensive reaction and make it much harder for a person to accept they’ve made a mistake and to learn from it.” We’ve all felt the embarrassment of being publicly scolded or criticised in front of colleagues for something we didn’t even know we’d done. It’s also not particularly effective in terms of forming a resolution either. Highlighting a mistake, shaming someone, and then leaving a room doesn’t leave space for a constructive conversation or creating an encouraging plan of action. Negative comments or observations in a public setting can also seem more like personal insults than valuable feedback.

Be specific

It’s easy (and entirely usual) to feel nervous about giving feedback. These nerves can sometimes make us tiptoe around the real issue or be overly polite. Sometimes, this results in a lack of clarity and individuals might struggle to understand what it is you’re really trying to convey. You can unintentionally seem passive-aggressive by doing this, too. 

Remember, you can be empathetic and compassionate without being rude. And speaking politely or indirectly doesn’t automatically mean you’re being empathetic. Actively listen, convey your point clearly, and take things slow. Make an effort to understand someone else’s perspective and consider how it feels to receive negative feedback. Make someone feel comfortable by being specific about the issue, why it’s an issue, and what the benefits of a change might be. Keep in mind that you’re there to give feedback for the benefit of the team and the organisation, not to make someone feel bad or guilty or attacked.

Be constructive and outline what’s next

Remember, giving negative feedback is a process. You’ve successfully shared your perspective and raised the issue (good work!) but now what?

Be clear about your expectations and work with the individual to devise a plan of action. This can be a collaborative effort, and your direct report can even go away and think about what needs to change. Of course, in some more urgent cases, you are required to provide the strategy, but on other occasions, consider what the individual could bring to the discussion.

Again, you’re providing feedback, not disciplining the individual or firing them, and in doing so, this means you believe in their capacity to change. Ask for their support in devising the next steps. If you’ve clearly conveyed why something needs to change, they might have great ideas or reveal something you didn’t already know. They’ll likely have an explanation for why things have been happening how they have up until now.

Giving feedback is an ongoing journey, too. It’s definitely not just one conversation. So, set actions and understand your role in the transformation. Decide with your report how any follow-up meetings will look and when they will be.

Delivering feedback well is a craft that takes time to perfect. Timing plays a pivotal role, and regular conversations with your team create an atmosphere of approachability and honesty. Privacy is paramount and ensures the setting suits constructive dialogue. Being clear and empathetic is essential for avoiding ambiguity and promoting a comfortable environment. Employee feedback is not an endpoint but the beginning of a transformation, so outline actionable steps and engage in an ongoing dialogue to foster far-reaching improvements.