How to Give Negative Feedback In a Positive Way

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Sep 26, 2017

Often I’ll have managers express reluctance to give performance improvement feedback to an employee who is either a great performer in general or an employee who did something well, but had a couple of areas where they could have done things better.

The manager fears their feedback will come across as “picky” or seem like they only notice the negative, not the positive. They fear that if they do bring up what needs to be improved, the other person will feel like all the good things they do aren’t appreciated and don’t matter.

So the manager remains silent, and the employee misses out on an opportunity to receive useful performance-improving feedback.

If the manager knows how to point out what needs to be tweaked a bit while getting the message across that she recognizes and appreciates all the positive aspects of the employee’s performance, her feedback will be far more useful and motivational.

How to point out the negative in a positive way

Here’s an example of how to do this:

Jacob (not his real name) wanted to get better at managing one of his direct reports, Kyle (also not his real name). He was frustrated with what he saw as Kyle’s lack of initiative. Besides Kyle seeming to have no interest in exploring more opportunities for their team to contribute to their employer’s strategic goals, he rarely came up with answers to Jacob’s questions about how processes could be improved.

Jacob had been referred for coaching because of his overly aggressive management style. While he acknowledged that some of his behaviors were inappropriate, he saw Kyle’s lack of initiative and unwillingness to think for himself as inherent flaws in Kyle’s make-up, not a result of his management style.

After interviewing Jacob’s team, including Kyle, it was clear that Jacob was his own worst enemy. He was, unfortunately, reaping what he was sowing.

His aggressive and often condescending approach, his not listening and frequently interrupting had alienated his team, especially the soft-spoken, mild-mannered Kyle.

Maybe the problem is me?

To his credit, Jacob was willing to look in the mirror and examine his behavior. Even though by nature he was very self-assured and convinced of his rightness in most matters, he was willing to consider that perhaps he was the common denominator in the various ways his team disappointed him.

After a couple of months of discussing and analyzing his interactions, Jacob was able to see that his interpersonal style played a central role in the lack of engagement he saw Kyle displaying.

As Jacob and I worked on how he could interact with Kyle (and the rest of the team) in a more respectful, inviting way, Kyle’s behavior began to change.

When the manager changes, so does the employee

In response to Jacob’s more respectful interactional style, Kyle started speaking up in meetings and in one-on-one conversations with Jacob. For the first time in years, he showed an active interest in contributing.

When asked how he might approach a project, Kyle started giving well-thought out answers, rather than rushed “I want to get him off my back” answers.

As part of our plan for giving Kyle more opportunities to shine and to demonstrate what he truly was capable of, Jacob asked Kyle to facilitate an important meeting, something Jacob had never considered asking Kyle to do previously.

Kyle did an excellent job, according to Jacob, except in one minor area.

There were a couple of places where the meeting stalled out, in Jacob’s opinion, and Kyle let it languish versus getting it back on track.

Will this feedback be helpful or make things worse?

Jacob rightly saw this as a great coaching opportunity to help Kyle grow professionally, but was worried that addressing that one area would make him sound overly critical. He was concerned that it might lead Kyle to believe he didn’t notice or appreciate all the good things Kyle did while running the meeting. He also worried that focusing on this one small area would set back their slowly improving relationship.

We discussed how it would benefit all parties — Kyle, Jacob, and their employer — if Jacob gave Kyle this professional development feedback. It would benefit all parties if he did it in a way that communicated:

  1. “I noticed the really good things you did in the meeting. Way to go!”
  2. “Here’s one small area where I think it would have been more helpful to handle differently…”
  3. “What are your thoughts about that and how might you handle it differently if it happens again?”

How to give negative feedback in a positive way

The following script is a modification of what I wrote out for Jacob as an example of how he might bring up the issue and give negative feedback in a productive way:

Jacob: Kyle I wanted to say again how impressed I was with how you ran the meeting last week. In fact, Sarah (the VP of their department) and I were talking about it afterwards. You (describe 3 or 4 of the things he did really well). Since I’ve been focusing on how I can be more helpful to you and the others on the team with regards to your professional development and professional goals. I also wanted to offer one suggestion; it’s something that I find really useful when running meetings. How does that sound?

Kyle: Sounds good.

Jacob: There were a couple of times where the group got quiet and seemed a little stalled, like when (describe the specific situation). Do you remember that happening?

Kyle: Either says he does or he doesn’t.

Jacob: I don’t know if you noticed, but I (said/asked whatever that was) and the conversation started up again. I find that saying/asking that is helpful to get things moving again. Also, if you ever notice how (name someone who is good at keeping meetings moving says/does X) when things stall, that’s another really helpful thing.

What do you think about that?

Kyle: Makes sense.

Jacob: Cool. That was the only thing I could see that could be done differently in the future. Otherwise, as I said, I thought it was stellar and so did Sarah. I’m curious, looking back, were there any areas where you felt stuck or “I’m not sure where we should be going here?” that you would like us to talk about?

Kyle: Not that I can remember.

Jacob: OK. Good deal. So I’ll be looking for other opportunities for you to run meetings and if you see one, please let me know. The more experience you have running meetings, the better. As you know, a person’s ability to run meetings has a huge impact on their effectiveness and reputation. I’m sure you know how some people are really bad at leading meetings and how that drives you crazy and how refreshing it is when someone is really good at leading meetings. So being good at running meetings will be a great skill to add to your repertoire and promote-ability, if that’s a word.

Kyle: Yeah.

Jacob: (To make this even more of a coaching session which also communicates “This isn’t about me giving you corrective feedback, it’s all about me mentoring you and using this teachable moment. Jacob could even ask him for examples of people who run meetings well and what he noticed.) To build on this, when you think of people in the company who are really good at leading meetings vs. those who aren’t, what are some of the differences you notice?

Big picture takeaways

I encourage you to reread the script while considering these points:

  1. It’s possible to give corrective or “growth opportunity” feedback to someone who is an overall great performer or performed really well at a task or project, and NOT make it sound like you don’t notice or appreciate all the good they did or do.
  2. By becoming more skilled at giving corrective or “growth opportunity” feedback, you not only help your direct reports perform better and grow professionally — something that all good employees want to do — you also strengthen and deepen your relationship with them, which not only leads to greater engagement, but also a greater willingness on their part to receive feedback by you.
  3. Since research shows that giving candid feedback is the manager skill that has the biggest gap between what employees want and what their managers do well, it is worth your effort becoming more proficient in this area and looking for more opportunities to give feedback.
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