Giving and Receiving Negative Feedback

How do you handle your direct reports when you’re unhappy with their work?

A. I wait until there is a performance review — there’s a time and a place for that.

B. I let them know right away that they screwed up and give them an opportunity to figure things out for themselves.

C. I silently stew and start looking for a replacement.

D. None of the above.

If you’ve chosen “D,” you may be a better manager than I was.

I’ve learned the hard way, through a long career in management consulting, how to give feedback to my employees when they’re not up to snuff or pulling their weight.

The key is to give constructive criticism — not just negative criticism — for two main reasons:

  1. Constructive criticism is kinder, and

  2. Constructive criticism works.

Some keys to giving constructive criticism:

  • Give it in real time, on the job and not six months later.

  • Put it in context.

  • Give examples.

  • Check for understanding.

  • Be prepared to answer clarifying questions with specifics.

The Golden Rule applies here: Give feedback as you would have it given, so that the recipient can hear it, take it in, learn from it, and trust that you are being fair. They will respect you for that.

Remember: You have to show you are invested in the success of the recipient.

What if you are on the receiving end of negative criticism?

I’ve been there and have all kinds of reactions, from arguing or just acting defensively, to being bewildered, to losing hope that my job was salvageable. Here are some specific pointers to being on receiving end of negative feedback:

  • Listen first.

  • Write down what you don’t understand and ask for clarification (at the end).

  • If you don’t find the feedback to be helpful, ask what you can do better to improve the situation.

And, worse case scenario and you’re losing your composure (you want to scream, punch someone or cry), you can always press the Pause button, and say, “Can we continue this conversation when I’m better able to absorb this? I don’t want it to go south.”

This makes you sound mature, gives you some distance and breathing room to sort out your emotions, and think of clarifying questions. By buying time, you’ll be taking the high road and won’t be adding fuel to an already hot situation.

What is an example of criticism you received that was helpful? How was it given and how did you improve the situation?