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Difficult conversations: How to give negative feedback

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Difficult conversations: How to give negative feedback

Updated: November 18th, 2020

Difficult conversations: How to give negative feedback

Even when you have stellar employees who do great work, it’s important to give them constructive feedback — in order to grow and improve, they need to know what areas they’re coming up short in!

This might not always be the sunniest of conversations, but giving negative feedback is critical to your role as a manager. And approached correctly, you could not only solve an issue with an employee, but also deepen a communicative relationship that pays back in spades.

Here are five things to keep in mind when delivering negative feedback to an employee:

1. Make it clear what the meeting is about.

No one likes ominous meetings with their manager on the calendar — even less so when it’s following a mistake or misstep.

Take the anxiety out of it and be clear that you want to provide feedback on their work (without making them think that you’re firing them).

Better yet, approach it in the context of your regular one-on-one with them, if you have one already scheduled.

2. Listen to your employee’s perspective.

Before you delve into your thoughts on the matter, make sure you ask about their point of view and listen carefully to what your employee has to say. 

You may be surprised — they might volunteer something they wish they had done differently, or include a kernel of information about the context that you didn’t have previously.

Reflect on this and be sure to ask clarifying questions if you have any — the better you understand their perspective, the better you’ll be able to help.

3. Don’t play “he said, she said.”

While peer feedback can be helpful in the right setting, claiming anonymous figures informed you of certain things makes the feedback less reliable and less likely to be taken seriously — and is a cowardly manager’s way out. If you’re delivering negative feedback, you need to believe it, so take ownership of what you’re communicating.

4. Ditch the feedback sandwich.

You may have heard that you should “sandwich” negative feedback between two positives — but this can downplay the feedback or read as disingenuous. Instead, present the information plainly and honestly. Be direct without being confrontational.

5. Make it a conversation.

When you deliver negative feedback as a manager, it shouldn’t be a punitive lecture.

Engage the employee in conversation about what happened, and offer different ways it could have been approached. If appropriate, relate to them by including personal stories from earlier in your career (or even last week).

You don’t need to be the boss monolith who never makes mistakes — let them know you’re human too, and that you don’t expect perfection from them, just continuous effort toward improvement.

It’s understandable if the upcoming conversation makes you feel a little gun-shy — delivering negative feedback can be stressful for both the giver and the recipient. What if they cry? What if you cry? Take a deep breath — it won’t be easy, but it doesn’t have to be scary (for anyone).


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