How can you deliver negative feedback in a positive way?

Written by
Wanda Wallace

30 Jun 2016

30 Jun 2016 • by Wanda Wallace

Last month I wrote about the importance of giving feedback and why, knowing how important it is, so many managers fail to give feedback effectively. This month I want to give you some practical tips on how to prepare to give negative feedback that is essential for your employees’ career development.

Giving effective feedback starts with preparation. You need to prepare like you would for any important meeting. Prepare your opening, thinking about how you can put the employee at ease and keeping in mind the employee’s motivation. Craft a clear message – focusing on the behaviors, the actions you want to see change. Choose one thing, not five to discuss.   
You’ve developed a clear theme. Now, break the message into concrete, specific behaviors.

You can use the easy-to-remember formula EAR:
Event – the specific occasion
Action – what the person did that you observed
Result – the impact on you, the team, the client

If you suspect the employee might not understand or accept the example you plan to give, then prepare a second example. Normally, this won’t have been an isolated event. Use the E-A-R formula in preparing every example. 

Please note, you do not need to prepare a solution to the problem. If you tell people how to resolve the problem, you risk damaging their motivation, engagement and more importantly ownership of the solution. Once employees accept the need to improve specific behaviours, you can guide them through coaching: listening, summarising, making observations, giving additional feedback and encouraging reflection by the questions you ask. 

Tackling tricky conversations

Having a difficult conversation can of course be stressful for both participants. So put the employee at ease. Watch to see that the person relaxes a bit. Begin the feedback by identifying the issue you want to discuss. Then, give your prepared example using the E-A-R formula. Now, be quiet. And listen. If you think your example was not accepted or understood, give another example. 

Do not argue or defend your position. Ask the employee to think about it and come back to you for further discussion in a defined time. 

Stay focused so you don’t accidentally confuse the message by throwing in tangential or irrelevant facts.

End the conversation with encouragement. Focus on what’s going well and what the person should keep doing.  

Steps to success

Your challenge from last month was to consider how Pat would feel about receiving feedback about his behaviour and to think about how the manner in which you deliver feedback would improve the result.  

To recap briefly: Pat is a top performer but he does not share information freely. This leaves many of his peers feeling excluded and unable to do their best work. It also makes others suspicious. Last week at a meeting Pat did not tell John about a client conversation and John’s project was therefore badly positioned. 

If we prepare the message together for Pat using the E-A-R formula it would look like this:

  • Identify the issue: Communication and trust within the team 
  • Specify an EVENT: Last week at the team meeting
  • Describe the ACTION you saw: You did not tell people about the conversations you have had Joe at ABC Company
  • State the RESULT on you, team, client: As a result, we missed an opportunity to build a broader base with this client. It also undermines the level of trust within the team that I am trying to develop.  

Pat is likely to have a reaction. He may get defensive, he may be embarrassed or he may stay silent.  What can you do in each case? If Pat gets defensive, do not argue. Simply ask him to think about what you have said and plan to speak to him after he has had time to reflect and cool off.  

If he is embarrassed, try to get him to talk about his emotion. Then, encourage him to think about what he can do differently. You might say, “Pat, I want you to think about the options you have in this situation.  What can you do to improve the quality of the client relationship at this point? Create three plausible responses that are different from each other.  Let’s talk tomorrow.” The reason for this response if that once Pat gets engaged in action, his embarrassment will diminish. 

If Pat remains silent, ask him what he has heard from you and listen carefully to be sure he understood your message. Then tell him to think about it and check back with him the next day.