The Art of giving Negative Feedback: Part 3 – Hone Your Delivery

As I discussed in the first two parts of this series, it’s critical to set the right context for delivering negative feedback as a manager and leader as well as build a feedback process. But even if you’ve done a great job with both, there is an art to having those tough conversations and ensuring your negative feedback is received in the most productive manner possible. Here’s a quick checklist that I follow to make that delivery successful:

A. Evaluate timing and venue: Immediacy is best in addressing behaviors that are clearly out of line. For example, “Don’t check your email on your phone during client meetings.” But when the feedback gets more complex and involves skill sets, interpersonal interaction, broader professional development or management feedback, timing can be critical.

  1. Don’t make a list and wait six to twelve months for the next review cycle.  Delivering feedback is an ongoing responsibility for all managers. Its easy to procrastinate, but feedback is many times more effective and leads to better learning when delivered as soon as possible.
  2. Don’t deliver negative feedback in front of others or via email or text message. These should be no brainers, but sometimes in the haste (or frustration) to correct, a manager can lose sight of making sure to have the proper setting.
  3. Set aside the time to address it properly. Delivering feedback always takes more time than you think. There is nothing worse than rushed feedback that leaves people hanging on your expectations for how they can fix the problem.
  4. Consider what venue would be best. Sometimes feedback over a beer will be received in a more constructive, collegial manner than that which is delivered in a formal office setting. On the flip side, if the feedback is important and serious enough to threaten someone’s continued employment, a formal approach may be best.
  5. For really tough feedback, deliver it early in the week. It’s much easier for someone to get back on the horse after they’ve fallen off if they haven’t spent a weekend worrying about it.
  6. Finally, think twice about whether an error truly requires negative feedback. Criticism can have an unexpectedly large impact on an employee’s happiness and productivity. The latest research suggests that to maintain motivation you need to praise someone five times to offset that one piece of negative feedback. So even if it bugs you, ask yourself whether you’re relaying the feedback to improve the employee’s performance or make yourself feel better.

B. Identify trends: It’s easy to nitpick by focusing on individual errors. But your job as a manager is to identify trends. For example, improving attention to detail is not about highlighting one glaring typo in an email to a client. Unless the behavior is clearly far out of line, you don’t want to be the manager that jumps down everyone’s throat any time something is a little off – it’s not constructive and makes it easy for your reports to tune out.

  1. Gather multiple data points.  Before delivering feedback, make sure you have multiple, unambiguous data points and a clear trend that is in line with the context you’ve set for that person’s professional development.
  2. Be sure to leverage 360-degree feedback. Feedback from colleagues and reports can provide lots of data points and multiple perspectives.

C. Deliver feedback strategically: Really think through the outcome you want to achieve and how the feedback aligns with the expectations you’ve set for the person or your team. For example, if the feedback is that a manager is micromanaging their team, they’ll never be able to grow themselves if they can’t help their team to think for themselves and if they’re spending all of their time managing minute details.

  1. Outline the context around the feedback you’re giving. Hightlight why it’s important for the company or that person, where it falls short of the expectations you’ve discussed in the past and how it’s in line with the professional development objectives they are working on.
  2. Be crystal clear about the feedback you’re giving and that it must improve. It must be unambiguous.  A common mistake is to sandwich negative feedback between the positive to lessen the blow. This will only water down the effect, and you need your message to come through loud and clear. Be very specific about the behaviors you want to stop, start, or continue.
  3. Reference data points and give concrete examples. Don’t just say someone needs to improve their attention to detail; list out five examples so they can understand the trend and really buy into fixing it.
  4. Make the feedback actionable. How does someone act differently moving forward? Make sure the focus is on future improvements, instead of dwelling on past errors.
  5. Finally, keep this in mind: You’re giving this feedback because you care. You care about your employees’ trajectory and success – whether at your company or in the future. You care about your company. It’s the right thing to do.

Remember that setting the stage for effectively delivering feedback starts day one when someone is hired or even sometimes during the interview process. You want a team that is hungry to grow and expects feedback – both good and bad.  Make sure you have a set of feedback processes that support professional development. And when you deliver negative feedback, make sure it’s done properly and comes from the right place: collaborative vs. punitive. There are no shortcuts to effectively delivering negative feedback and it’s certainly much more art than science, but when done right, it’s an incredibly effective tool in creating a growing, thriving team and organization.

Do you have any other tips for delivering negative feedback? Any lessons learned or examples from when you delivered negative feedback that wasn’t well received? Or when it was? 

About alexford

Alex Ford is an accomplished entrepreneur, angel investor and executive. He has led Praetorian Digital, the leading online media company in the public safety and security market, as CEO and President since 2001. Under his direction, Praetorian has launched more than 30 websites, including PoliceOne.com, FireRescue1.com, EMS1.com and CorrectionsOne.com – all the #1 digital media properties in their respective markets – and brought together more than one million first responders to create the world’s largest network for public safety.
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