If someone is unhappy with your performance at work, wouldn’t you want to know? At the very least, you’d like an opportunity to clear the air, or address the problem, or explain…or something. Yet when it comes to giving negative or difficult feedback, most of us feel reluctant to give it. We don’t want to hurt the other person or we are afraid of a conflict, so we end up avoiding it. One my colleagues recently used the following analogy during a training session.
“A stone makes a chip in your windscreen. If you leave it, it will spread and a small crack will become significantly larger, and likely more expensive to repair. Leave it too long and the chances of you having to replace the windscreen are pretty much guaranteed. Being unhappy with someone’s performance can be like that original chip. If you avoid the issue and do nothing, it may spread. Over time the situation will escalate and you are likely to become more judgmental than objective. Dealing with a performance related issue in a timely manner means stopping the problem from increasing and fixing that crack.”
No, giving negative feedback is not one of the enjoyable aspects of managing people. Doing it constructively is a challenge for the best of us, and even when we do it well – who’s to say that your feedback is taken on board and improvements are made?
Here are 7 tips to get you started, and they are explained in more detail below:
- Be clear about what you want at the end before you begin
- Use language that focuses on the situation, not on the person
- Turn up to the conversation, stay there and speak out
- Be open, try to be objective, don’t judge
- Demonstrate understanding
- Give examples and share patterns – and the impact on you/others
- Believe in change
Be clear about what you want at the end before you begin
What is obvious to you is not always obvious to others. People cannot look into your head (or heart) and guess how you’d like things. You need to be able to explain, in simple and safe language, what you want from the conversation and why you are starting it. Think about it, picture it. Simply saying that you want something to improve is not enough, it means different things to different people. Be specific and focus on the future. A useful approach is to know if this is an A, B or C discussion. Are you focusing on a specific Action, an ongoing Behaviour or possible Consequences ? Try not to mix them. Another approach my colleagues use in training is “feed forward not back”.
And finally, think about this: if you’re giving negative feedback because you want to ‘make a point’ – there really is no point.
Use language that focuses on the situation, not on the person
Giving negative feedback is always a very personal thing, for both parties. Keep this is in mind when the other person takes your feedback personal. There are no magic phrases to use when giving negative feedback but avoid language like “you did” and “you shouldn’t have”. Owning your sentence with “I” is a better place than judging or blaming with “you”. Try sentences that start with “I noticed” or “I saw”. Avoid using “I think” or “I heard” as this implies a personal feeling, gossip, and/or judgement. Do keep in mind though that the “I” isn’t magic. If you are blaming somebody, the “I” doesn’t change how they react. And if you are managing people consider sometimes using “our” or “we” as a replacement for “I”.
Given time to absorb and reflect, most of us are grown-up enough to move past the personal impact of what is being said. More often than not, once we look back on the situation, we’re glad that someone gave us the feedback and brought it to our attention so that we can try to change our behaviour, or take appropriate action.
Turn up to the conversation, stay there and speak out
If you are going to give difficult or negative feedback you need to be present in the moment. You are committed to the conversation because you believe both parties will benefit. Shut out unhelpful self-talk like “well it won’t make any difference” or “ I knew he would say that when I said this”. You both need to focus on this conversation and the outcome. You owe it to both of you to say what you think and feel, taking responsibility for your words and the outcome.
Be open, try to be objective, don’t judge
Don’t be vague, don’t be ambiguous. If the situation is a big deal, don’t call it a minor issue. Be open to receiving feedback on your feedback. Listening is as important as talking. Effective feedback is always a two-way street. And remember, what is obvious to others is not always obvious to you.
It’s almost never a good idea to judge others by your standards. You would do this or that, if you were him or her in this situation? You’re not him or her, you’re you. Or, he or she should do this or that in this situation? Better yet, if you were him or her, you wouldn’t even be in this situation… None of that means anything, beyond that you are different people.
For feedback to lead to a positive outcome for both sides you need to demonstrate understanding. You can do this by …
- Actively looking to find truth and agreement in what they are saying and validating this. If you disagree with everything they say, how likely is it that they will accept and embrace everything you are saying?
- Keep calm, centred and actively side-step confrontation and escalation.
- Summarize your understanding of the other persons feelings (and be open to them correcting you).
- Summarize your understanding of what they have said (and again, they can correct you)
- Asking a straight question to build bridges
Give examples and share patterns – and the impact on you/others
Your vested interest and understanding of the situation are important and this should be clear early in the conversation. Models such as DESC build this in. If you are not clear about something, ask and listen. Stick to what was observed. And as mentioned earlier, know whether you want to focus on an action, a pattern of behaviours or consequences.
“When we talk about patterns of behaviour, people will typically ask for an example. You are obliged to give examples- but if somebody is behaving defensively be prepared for them to then pull the example apart (challenge facts, bring in new information that may or may not be relevant, argue it was a unique situation). Your task is to listen, learn AND keep the conversation focussed on the pattern and no single event or action.”
Believe in change, support change
The words you say, your thoughts, your body language – if you don’t believe this change can happen, it probably won’t. You are a part of this change. You are, in fact, one of the initiators. More often than not, you can do more than give negative feedback. For change to work, it can’t come at a cost of something else and it often isn’t the responsibility of only one person to make the change. Look to create a “safe” environment where change is made easier.
And finally, not every moment needs to be a feedback moment
Sometimes people are having a rough time, sometimes problems do correct themselves. Not everything needs to be addressed, not every situation is a feedback or learning moment. Sometimes choosing not to give negative feedback is okay too – unless avoiding it comes at a cost (e.g. your frustration, team spirit, the problem escalates). Not giving difficult or negative feedback doesn’t mean saying nothing and doing nothing. Try a different approach – the feed forward method focuses the discussion on common goals and what you need to see done differently going forward. Use the CIA model (Control, Influence, Accept) to determine which parts apply to this situation – and finding techniques that will help you move past it, without giving negative feedback.