Q – I manage a small team, and one of the parts of my job I hate the most is when I have to give staff members negative feedback. When I’m too nice I feel like they don’t get the message and when I’m too direct I worry that I’ve hurt their confidence. What’s the best way to give negative feedback in a constructive way?
A – Giving negative feedback is one of the hardest things we have to do as managers. We want to be supportive of our people but we also need to set a certain expectation and manage performance against it. Nobody wants to be told they’re performing poorly and it’s no easy task to deliver that news. This is why so many of us approach the delivery of negative feedback in the wrong way. Some managers are too harsh, others sugar coat everything, and a few avoid giving feedback entirely. Over the years I’ve seen four common approaches managers take to giving critical feedback, and none of them are particularly effective.
No feedback … No problem. Many managers can’t bear to give negative feedback to their team members. Arguably this is the worst of all the feedback afflictions. They tell themselves they’re “positive” and “supportive” but in reality these managers are just prioritizing their own comfort over the well-being of their employees. Of all the profiles we’re going to talk about, this one probably upsets me the most and it’s quite prevalent. At least overly harsh managers are honest. This group lies to themselves. They avoid delivering criticism - ostensibly out of kindness but actually out of fear. Our job as a managers is to help people become the greatest versions of themselves by providing support and development. When you don’t give people critical feedback you’re actually demonstrating that you don’t really care about them at all.
Have you ever had a new boss come in and all of a sudden you start receiving a ton of criticism? We start by blaming the new boss – she isn’t seeing things accurately – he has unrealistic expectations. The reality though, in most cases, is that our previous manager, the one who didn’t have the courage to be critical, has given us a false sense that we were performing well when in fact we had lots of room to get better. And now we find ourselves unprepared and under-performing. Don’t do this to your team members.
Domo arigato Mr. Roboto. These guys are slightly more developed versions of the no-feedback manager. These are managers who have finally gotten up the courage to deliver negative feedback but don’t yet have the experience or comfort level to do it properly. I’ve had a couple managers like this over the years and I see them around quite a bit. Mr. Roboto gives feedback like he’s reading off a menu. A cold recitation of points – a list – of the areas you need to fix. There’s no real discussion and it doesn’t come from a place of empathy – it’s mechanical. The manager told herself she needed to give feedback and now she’s delivering it and will go back to her desk and check a box: Feedback given to employee … check.
The robotic approach, while an improvement on no feedback at all, isn’t particularly effective and certainly doesn’t inspire much energy in the team member who is on the receiving end. Similar to the previous profile, this approach comes from a selfish place. It’s important to remember why we’re giving feedback in the first place. It’s not about you. It’s about helping the person get better so they can achieve their personal goals and contribute to the company’s objectives. Feedback needs to come from a position of empathy and Mr. Roboto has very little.
Sugar and spice and everything nice. This profile represents another small improvement on giving no feedback at all, but it can be counterproductive and almost as damaging if you’re not careful. Some managers, with hearts in the right place, tend to sugar coat everything. They can’t seem to give a piece of critical feedback without spinning it into a positive. I’ve even seen some managers start out with negative feedback on an issue and then wipe it out completely within the course of the same sentence. Something like, “John, I’ve been getting feedback from other team members that you’re not being collaborative. Now I know that you’re a really strong individual contributor and that’s your style – which is great, and I value that …”
Umm … that’s not feedback. That’s confusing.
The temptation to put a positive spin on negative feedback is strong. All managers feel it. I often have to remind myself not to spin my criticism in this way. Nobody wants to hurt someone’s feelings. We don’t want to upset people. It’s not easy to deliver bad news. But that’s why you’re a manager. Honesty and kindness are not mutually exclusive. You can be critical and still be a good person. If you can’t be completely honest with the people on your team you should find another line of work.
Super soul smashers. There is a class of manager we’ve all experienced who are a little too high on the sadism spectrum. Thankfully there seem to be fewer of these guys around lately but there are a few still hanging around at every company. They are aggressive and harsh with feedback and even seem to take pleasure in watching your world crumble as they dole out criticism after criticism. When you have a manager like this it can seem like there is no good – only bad, very bad and extremely bad. You can even find yourself after many months and years where bad actually seems like a win. It’s a terrible place to be and a terrible approach to delivering feedback.
I’m not going to dive deeply into what makes these people tick, but I will say that you need to make sure the feedback you’re giving to team members comes from a positive place. Your goal is not to crush people. It’s also not to make you feel smarter. There is no book out there that says you need to put your little mark on everything that comes across your desk. It’s good to check yourself once in a while when you’ve just laid down your 10th straight criticism or if there is venom in your voice while you’re delivering it. The truth is, if you have someone on your team that is causing you to feel angry or negative or disappointed, you should start thinking about letting them go instead of crushing them every day with your criticism.
I’m sure you’ve had experience with some of the profiles I’ve just described. You may even see glimpses of yourself in them. Not to worry, I’ve seen bits of each one of these in my own style over the years as I’ve tried to become a better manager. The key for you is to recognize the problems in yourself and start working to improve.
Here are three tips that have worked for me:
1. Build a culture of feedback. The healthiest teams in my experience have a culture of feedback built into them. Feedback is a constant – it’s not something reserved for 1-1 meetings and performance reviews. As a manager I want my team members to embrace the feedback process as a part of their professional journey. This is only possible when your staff believe you actually care about them and your feedback is rooted in a desire to help them achieve their personal goals. I try to pull feedback out from behind closed doors and formal sessions and bring it out into the open. When you give critical direction that comes from a supportive place, it doesn’t need to be embarrassing or done in private. In fact I’ve found when you give feedback to individuals in front of their teammates, they will rally together and start helping each other. That’s when the magic happens. It goes without saying that some kinds of feedback should be private – but not all of it. If you can get a team to be comfortable with feedback and supportive of their teammates, you can raise the level of engagement and performance in a profound way. What I don’t want is for feedback to be something only done in whispers and corners or to be something employees are ashamed of. Most critical feedback does not need to be seen as a negative.
2. Make feedback a part of the journey to being great. There is a big difference between feedback that is set in the context of performing poorly and feedback that is set in the context of becoming great. As a manager, I want every employee to feel like they’re on a journey to greatness – not a journey to acceptable performance. Greatness is inspiring, energizing. People respond to that. So when you’re providing critical feedback, I recommend framing it like, “Jane, I know you want to be a great blog writer and I’m certain you can be one. Let’s talk about some areas that are going to be key for you to make progress towards becoming a world class blogger.” That’s a much better message than, “Jane, your writing needs work. You have a tendency to ramble and your blogs lack a compelling point of view.” The first one makes Jane want to get better and the second one just tells Jane she sucks at her job.
3. Show what great looks like. One thing many managers miss is the need to actually show team members what great looks like. This is often the case with Director level managers who have teams of senior people. They will say things like, “We’re paying him a lot and he should know how to do it.” This attitude is shortsighted and presumptuous in my opinion. It seems more rooted in frustration than in any real desire for improvement. In lower levels of management I see many leaders give initial feedback but then leave the employee hanging. That typically goes something like, “Mary, your plan needs work. It doesn’t do a good enough job at summarizing the key points, and the way you’re presenting the data isn’t visually compelling. I’d like you to come back to me in a week with a revision.” Ok – well the feedback was there but how exactly is Mary going to know what to do when she gets back to her desk to deliver a better result. She knows what not to do, and where the problems lie, but she has no idea what good looks like. The chances of her coming back with something great are slim in this scenario.
This is where, as a manager, you need to take things a step or two further. Show team members examples of awesome work. Walk through a skeleton or outline of specific changes they can make. Work through one example yourself to provide a model to emulate. It’s not enough just to give feedback – you need to lay out a path to success.
Giving feedback is challenging. As managers it’s one of the most difficult parts of our jobs. But if we get it right, it can be extremely rewarding and can help build a truly great team. I hope you can take some of these tips and implement them into your own game plan.