In a previous career as an Employee Assistance Program councilor (EAP) I was often required to work with troubled or difficult employees. Sometimes it was the managers who referred them for support and other times people self-referred and sort me out because of difficulty with their manager. A common observation was that the 2 sides of the equation did not match. What the manager said had happened and what the employee claimed had happened were two different things.
The problem was the illusion that the manager had given clear and effective feedback to a subordinate. Or that the subordinate had fully understood and taken on board the scope and implications of the feedback given to them by their manager. George Bernard Shaw said, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place”. And from my experience, this is especially the case when it comes to delivering and receiving negative feedback. So, given that research shows that negative feedback is not handled well and 51% of employees feel their performance discussion is not handled well, and my own experience which backs this up.
Now let us acknowledge that most people do not like giving bad news and negative feedback and many managers avoid difficult conversations, such as the negative feedback discussion or negative performance evaluation. Given that this conversation is so important, and we don’t want to miss communicate or under communicate, Now let us acknowledge that most people don’t like giving bad news and negative feedback and many managers avoid difficult conversations, such as the negative feedback discussion or negative performance evaluation. Given that this conversation is so important, and we don’t want to miss communicate or under communicate, how can we make our negative feedback discussions more successful and ensure that effective communication has indeed taken place. Here are 6 steps to help you be more successful in your negative feedback conversations.
6 Steps to Improve Your Negative Feedback
1. Be honest and authentic.
This means speaking the truth and being aligned emotionally, verbally, and nonverbally with your message. Kouzes and Posner in The Leadership Challenge, report that in Australia, honesty is consistently the number one train that workers admire and respect within their leaders. So, while it may be easier to gloss over things and avoid some of the tough stuff, being authentic and honest will help in communicating the negative message.
2. Don’t use the Sandwich Technique.
The sandwich technique is the good news, bad news, good news technique, and the negative content is sandwiched in-between two positive pieces of news. This method is aimed at softening the blow but has the effect of possibly diluting or lessening the main message, which is the negative feedback. The US Navy Seals use a model of delivering the bad news up front.
3. Time and Place Matters.
This means taking time and planning the negative feedback discussion. Friday afternoon 15 minute before the weekend commences, is not a good time to give someone negative feedback. In front of a meeting, or in front of the team is also not a good place to give negative feedback. They say praise in public (unless the person is an introvert and would prefer to escape the limelight) and criticise in private. More and more managers that I am working with are liking the idea of walking and talking to give feedback, especially in the mining sector. The walk maintains breathing, takes it outside the office and it feels safe. A key to negative feedback is creating a psychologically safe place to talk.
4. Follow Up.
It is important to follow up with the negative feedback discussion to check in on the understanding of the message communicated. Remember I am seeing many cases where managers think they communicated one thing, but the other person is still unaware of the importance or the gravity of that message. With follow up it is good to set a date and time and that way it does not get lost in the business of the day or get put in the too hard or avoidance basket.
5. Listen with Empathy.
Any negative feedback discussion is going to have 2 sides of the story and 2 truths. As someone giving the negative feedback you will expect the other person to respond and to give their own perspective. Please listen and show empathy and understanding and really try to grasp their story and their understanding of the situation. This make it easier to be clear and specific with your negative feedback. Andy Stanley said, “Leaders who don’t listen will eventually be surrounded by people who have nothing to say.”
6. Be constructive.
There is constructive feedback and destructive feedback. Every conversation we have with another person, we can either build them up and add to them or knock them down and detract from them. I chose to build people up. As a manager, leader, or parent, even in a negative feedback discussion you can be constructive and build them up and add to them while giving them the feedback.
The next time you find yourself delivering negative feedback, you can use these 6 steps as a guide, to help you prepare for the conversation and afterwards as a checklist to gauge how well it went. If feedback is a skill that you would like to develop in your organisation, Violet does a one day workshop on “Giving And Receiving Feedback”.