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Negative feedback – food for thought or a bitter pill?

By February 8, 2023Leadership

Humans eh?  You think we’d have cracked this giving feedback thing by now.  We start with the best intentions – give it often, be open to getting it back a bit too – yet when the pressure is on, we forget to make it a priority and fall back on pointing out the flaws in a rush and staying quiet when people do a good job.  We also worry that we have don’t have the right to give feedback – to team members, colleagues and bosses. Not only is it our right to give it, it is their right to expect it and to give us feedback in return.  It just needs to be done with a modicum of skill, compassion and common sense, especially when it comes to negative feedback.

The first thing is to examine your motive.  What compels you to want to give negative feedback in the first place?  A genuine desire to help someone grow and develop, the need to stop someone who is behaving in a way that is holding them back and a wish to tell someone something don’t do well and the negative impact it has so that they can change what they are doing for the better. These are all honourable motives and likely to result in constructively delivered feedback.  A compulsion to get something off your chest or to take someone down a peg or two are less honourable (though understandably tempting at times) and more likely to lead to destructive feedback – and in the short term certainly, will do more harm than good.

Once you have your motive sorted, the next thing is to know the go-zones and no-go zones for negative feedback.  Stay away from feedback directed at someone’s personality and values. No matter how much of a wordsmith you are, this kind of feedback feels personal and is tough to change and so fits in to the no-go zones for feedback.  Then there are our attitudes – our approach to and views on things – and our behaviour – the outward signs of our attitude.  These are the go-zones for negative feedback.  They concentrate on what we are doing, not who we are, are easier on the ear and more likely to be acted upon.  It’s the difference between telling someone you desk share with (a real possibility these days with more flexible work spaces) that their messy papers, Post It note pandemic and non-existent filing make it impossible for you to work and can you both sort out a better system – constructive – and telling them they are a messy slob with no idea how to organise themselves and would they do this at home? – destructive.

A lot has been written about techniques and structures for feedback. Take them with a pinch of salt.  In some cases, it would be a start just to get people doing feedback at all, let alone trying to weave it around some fancy process.

In particular, beware the unsubtle ones like the Praise Sandwich (and yes it has another title too). The idea is to sandwich some negative feedback between two bits of positive feedback thereby softening the blow.  Guess what?  We all know when it’s being done to us and it tends to get used when you have only wafer-thin crispbreads of positive feedback to act as bookends for a massive wedge of negative filling. “Thank you for turning up to work every day – just about everything you do in your job is rubbish – but I really like your earrings.”  An exaggeration but you get the idea.  Better to say what needs to be said, check how the person feels about it and what their view is and then look ahead.

Finally, there is an element of getting your own house in order when it comes to negative feedback.  You may be skilled at giving it, but how elegant are you at receiving it?  Before you unleash your negative feedback on unsuspecting staff and colleagues, do a quick check that you too can receive feedback with grace.

Ken Blanchard refers to feedback as “the breakfast of champions”, so yours needs to be digestible and if not palatable, at least useful and constructive to the person you give it to.  That way, they may even return for seconds.