10 Smart Rules for Giving Negative Feedback

Here's how to handle employees when a kick in the rear is more appropriate than a pat on the back.

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Praising good performance is easy, but what about those times when someone on your team needs a kick in the butt more than a pat on the back?

In that case, you’ll need to give some negative feedback–and do it without demotivating or demoralizing the other person. This post explains exactly how to do this.

Before we get started, though, it’s important to remember that the goal of feedback isnot to tell people what to do or how to do it. That’s mistaking the process for the goal.

The actual goal of feedback–even negative feedback–is to improve the behavior of the other person to bring out the best in your entire organization.

With that in mind, here are the 10 rules:

1. Make negative feedback unusual.

When a work environment becomes filled with criticism and complaint, people stop caring, because they know that–whatever they do–they’ll get raked over the coals. “I try to give seven positive reinforcements for every negative comment,” says Dan Cerutti, a general manager at IBM.

2. Don’t stockpile negative feedback.

Changes in behavior are more easily achieved when negative feedback is administered in small doses. When managers stockpile problems, waiting for the “right moment,” employees can easily become overwhelmed.

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“Feedback is best given real time, or immediately after the fact,” explains management coach Kate Ludeman.

3. Never use feedback to vent.

Sure, your job is frustrating–but although it might make you feel better to get your own worries and insecurities off your chest, venting a string of criticisms seldom produces improved behavior. In fact, it usually creates resentment and passive resistance.

4. Don’t email negative feedback.

People who avoid confrontation are often tempted use email as a vehicle for negative feedback. Don’t.

“That’s like lobbing hand grenades over a wall,” says legendary electronic publishing guru Jonathan Seybold. “Email is more easily misconstrued, and when messages are copied, it brings other people into the fray.”

5. Start with an honest compliment.

Compliments start a feedback session on the right footing, according to according to management consultant Sally Narodick and current board member at the supercomputer company Cray. “Effective feedback focuses on the positive while still identifying areas for further growth and better outcomes.”

6. Uncover the root of the problem.

You can give better feedback if you understand how the other person perceives the original situation. Asking questions such as, “Why do you approach this situation in this way?” or “What was your thought process?” not only provides you perspective, but it can lead other people to discover their own solutions and their own insights.

7. Listen before you speak.

Most people can’t learn unless they first feel that they’ve been heard out. Effective feedback “means paying attention and giving high-quality feedback from an empathic place, stepping into the other person’s shoes, appreciating his or her experience, and helping to move that person into a learning mode,” says Ludeman.

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8. Ask questions that drive self-evaluation.

Much of the time, people know where they’re having problems and may even have good ideas about how to improve. Asking questions such as “How could we have done better?” and “What do you think could use improvement?” involves the other person in building a shared plan.

9. Coach the behaviors you would like to see.

Negative feedback is useless without a model for how to do better. But simply telling the other person what to do or how to do it is usually a waste of time.

Instead, use this tried-and-true coaching method, which is based upon what top sports coaches do.

10. Be willing to accept feedback, too.

If you truly believe that negative feedback can improve performance, then you should be willing to accept it as well as provide it. In fact, few things are more valuable to managers than honest feedback from employees. It’s to be treasured rather than discouraged or ignored.

Geoffrey James writes the “Sales Source” column on Inc.com, the world’s most-visited sales-oriented blog. His newly published book is Business to Business Selling: Power Words and Strategies From the World’s Top Sales Experts@Sales_Source

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