How to Give Negative Feedback

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Richard Foster-Fletchers’s 10 steps for giving feedback when someone has done a dreadful job

We know that people are trying to do the best they can; most of the time. However, on occasion something can go badly wrong.  Here are the approaches I use to give honest feedback and ensure the person doesn’t feel demoralised.

1. Give yourself time to control your emotions

The truth is, terrible work can make you despair, or get angry, or irritated. None of these feelings are conducive to a healthy conversation. So, take a deep breath, relax, make you are in a calm and collected state of mind before you even think of starting a conversation.

2. Do it right now

The sooner you give the feedback, the stronger your case is likely to be. Time has a way of smoothing out the rough edges in people’s memories, so delaying is likely to make the recipient feel they did a better job than they did.

3. Do it face-to-face

It’s tempting to shoot off an email and be done with it. But what is good for you is terrible for the person on the receiving end. Emails are already bad at conveying positive emotions, so an email of negative feedback is that much worse.

4. Do it in private

When the work is truly bad, it makes no sense to make it an exercise in humiliation. Doing it in private allows the recipient to open up and be more receptive.

5. Make a checklist to avoid venting

I’ve been guilty of this – slipping into a “feedback loop” where I have gone on at length, attacking the work from various angles but basically saying nothing new and original. Making a checklist of talking points before the session helps keep me on track.

6. Give the recipient a chance to speak

Once you’ve laid out the basic issues and observations, it is best to let the other person speak. It makes them feel that you are there not just to criticise, but also listen. This makes a lot of difference on how feedback is perceived.

7. Discuss the work, not the individual

Keep the conversation and feedback focused on the specific task you are critiquing. This helps avoid anything that might be perceived as a personal attack. Commenting on anything not directly related to the work is going to make them even more defensive.

8. Specific problems and specific solutions

Try to avoid statements like “your work didn’t meet the company’s quality standards”. Instead point to specific issues that went wrong. Then, discuss how those issues can be resolved. Discussing what need to change to improve the quality of the work will make the session a productive one.

9. Establish a plan to move forward

With direct reports whether it’s a rework of the original task, or specific measures the recipient should be taking to improve performance – always ensure that the person knows what to do and has some accountability after the review.  For a colleague you can offer to follow up with them if they’ve decided on a course of action and need support.

10. End with a message of encouragement

When it comes to truly irredeemable work, this is difficult. In such cases, it is better to end with a statement reaffirming your faith that the person can leave the inferior performance behind and move forward.  This is also useful outside the formal feeback process. Try to ensure the person goes away hopeful, and not defeated.

Giving feedback is important and also a big responsibility.  If the recipient is junior to us or has less experience they are more likely to be susceptible to harsh words, and more confused by vague and unclear critique than we would be. It is crucial that we empathise with the person and their situation.  This will help us deliver unwelcome news in a way and with words that help them overcome the setback and move on to bigger and better things.

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About Author

Richard Foster-Fletcher

Richard Foster-Fletcher is a member of Toastmasters International, a not-for-profit organisation that has provided communication and leadership skills since 1924 through a worldwide network of clubs. There are more than 400 clubs and 10,000 members in the UK and Ireland. Members follow a structured educational programme to gain skills and confidence in public and impromptu speaking, chairing meetings and time management. To find your nearest club, visit www.toastmasters.org

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