Last reviewed 7 August 2014

Honesty is the best policy when it comes to delivering negative feedback, as Val Moore reports.

Positive feedback on good performance is something that everyone likes to give, although some people are not good at receiving it. However, what is obvious is that no one likes to give, or receive, negative feedback.

Delivering bad news can be difficult because of:

  • fear of damaging the relationship

  • the wish to be supportive of colleagues rather than critical

  • the fact that British people tend to be innately polite — and being honest (and upsetting people) does not feel right.

However, people must be honest with each other, otherwise:

  • resentment can build up in the person who has the knowledge of the “misdemeanour”, and that resentment can damage the relationship, with the other person never knowing why

  • pretending there is not a problem is dishonest

  • others may be aware of the problem and wonder why no one is doing anything about it, which can lead to more resentment

  • the business can suffer if the problem is one that relates to the running of the business.

Delivering negative feedback without demoralising the recipient is an art! But if delivered well, criticism and negative feedback can be motivating and a force for change.

There are two people in this negative feedback scenario — the deliverer and the receiver — both of whom need to deal with the situation.

Notes for the deliverer

  • In most open business relationships, negative feedback will be an exception. A business where negative feedback is the norm has a dysfunctional management system. It creates a culture of resentment, unhappiness and a feeling that it is pointless to do anything as “they will only have a go — whatever I do will be wrong”.

  • If something needs to be said, say it. Do not save up several examples of poor performance and bring them all up at a six-monthly performance review. This will only make the receiver upset, overwhelmed and demoralised. One problem can be discussed more easily than several, and gives everyone a chance to rectify the problem sooner rather than later. After all, we don’t save up all the praise for the performance reviews — at least we hope not.

  • Praise where praise is due. Try the “sandwich” approach; that is, find something positive to say, then discuss the problem, and finish with a positive comment.

  • Put the problem into context — how it affected a person/the business — and give a wider overview than just the problem being discussed.

  • Say what the problem is and then listen very carefully, particularly when the situation is not one that would not be expected to arise with this person. It may well be due to an underlying issue that the deliverer is unaware of, for example a personal problem or something about the business, its personnel, suppliers or customers that needs to come to light and be addressed.

  • Concentrate on the problem and the action, not the person or the personality.

  • Where the problem is something that the individual has, or has not, done encourage that person to explain (not excuse) why the problem has arisen. Together, discuss (rather than tell) the way forward. By helping the individual to find a solution him or herself, he or she is more likely to work towards it — rather than having a solution imposed upon them.

  • Have regular reviews, praise small improvements, continue to talk and listen.

Notes for the receiver

  • Accept the criticism. Hopefully the person giving the feedback should do so constructively. Look upon it as a learning experience.

  • Admit to a mistake. Everyone makes mistakes, we learn by them.

  • Do not take it personally; it is an action that is under discussion, not you as a person.

  • Do listen. People often block out what they do not want to hear. Understand the whole picture and do not just focus on the bits where you feel you are being misjudged or you feel aggrieved about.

  • Do not get defensive about what is being said.

  • Do ask questions if there is anything that is unclear.

  • Show you are willing to learn and change. Ask for advice and support. Discuss ways forward.

  • If you do feel upset, ask for a five-minute break.

  • Do not rant and mutter at other employees about how unfair everything is. Be professional.

  • Agree a way forward.

Finally, don’t do anything rash. Everyone hates getting bad reviews; it dents our pride and self-esteem. Don’t compound an unpleasant situation and make it worse by bad-mouthing the giver of the feedback or sending an unsuitable email. Instead, stop and consider whether it was justified and see how you feel after a period of reflection.

If, after thoughtful consideration, you feel that the feedback was unjustified, then you are within your rights to open a conversation outlining your grievance. Usually though, a period of reflection will help you see the way forward in a calmer way, once the “pain” of the moment has moved on.

So remember — allowing potential problems to go unchecked can not only be damaging to the business, but could even be dangerous in certain situations.