How To Master The Art Of Giving Negative Feedback

Step away from the feedback "sandwich," stick to the facts, and three other tips to giving good feedback.

When you’re a leader, giving feedback, both positive and negative, comes with the territory. But not everyone is comfortable giving it. Sarah Green, a senior associate editor with the Harvard Business Review, recently scoured HBR’s blog for the site’s best advice for how to give negative feedback. Here are her five tips:

1. Be direct by avoiding the feedback “sandwich.”

Instead of couching criticism with positive feedback (which can dilute the message and sounds insincere), approaching the issue directly and with transparency allows everyone to understand the purpose of the discussion and keep the conversation on track. For example, if a colleague’s presentation style needs improvement, you can approach the conversation by asking if you can provide some feedback. They’ll (most likely) say yes, and will be more open to accepting it.

2. Don’t let criticism accumulate.

By scheduling weekly check-ins with your team, feedback becomes part of the regular routine. “Often managers save up criticism for weeks or months and then pour it out all at once,” says Ethan Rasiel, CEO of Lightspeed Public Relations, a Brooklyn-based firm. “It’s better to provide feedback--positive and negative--in real time,” he says. By giving regular feedback, you’ll become more comfortable giving it, and your team will be more prepared to receive it.

3. Don’t make it personal.

Stick to the facts, and avoid making assumptions. If a direct report is frequently arriving late or missed a deadline, for example, address the behavior with him directly, keeping an open mind. He may have a family emergency or issue you’re not aware of, and confronting the issue head-on will help address the problem instead of letting it fester (or accumulate).

4. Offer praise, but keep it separate from criticism.

Even the most intrinsically motivated among us needs to receive positive feedback every now and then. In fact, studies show that the most effective teams operate at a 5.6 to 1 ratio, with five compliments to every one critique. To ensure your message isn’t diluted, however, keep praise and criticism separate.

5. Be honest, and offer space if appropriate.

If you think the feedback will be difficult to hear, consider giving the person the rest of the afternoon off to process the information. Green points to studies that suggest even top performers are vulnerable to setbacks.

Hat tip: Harvard Business Review

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5 Comments

  • The compliment sandwich and taking things personally has been the hardest barriers to break through when providing criticism. This is all great advice!

  • Great points, Lindsay is really demonstrating how to keep the feedback balanced. Sometimes we hear to try to turn everything into a positive comment, but it's missing the point. I think my favourite tip in the article is not allowing the (negative) feedback to build up - it's worth pointing out that technology can really help with this - HR application which allows to share bite-sized comments about employee's performance on the go can completely transform the flow of information and opinion within a team.

  • John Gottman's research says a 5:1 ratio is needed for a healthy marriage. Looks like teams need an even stronger dose of affirmation. Great point.

  • raymondbwilliams

    This advice flies in the face of most recent research in neuroscience. Critical feedback is often clothed in the term "constructive feedback" but amounts to the same thing. The reality is that our brain's defines mechanisms which perceive criticism as a threat unconsciously and automatically activate, and the receiver's rational, logical thinking processes don't work very well.Robert Sutton, Stanford University professor, says that performance evaluations do more harm than good. A 1998 study by Development Dimensions Incorporated, found that employers themselves expressed overwhelming dissatisfaction with performance reviews. A 2005 national survey, found that 87% of employees and managers felt performance reviews were neither useful nor effective. In an article published in The Psychological Bulletin, psychologists A. Kluger and A. Denisi report completion of a meta-analysis of 607 studies of critical feedback concluded that at least 30% of end up in worse performance.

  • The Solution-Focused Business model has a great performance evaluation that focuses on an individuals "peak" performance and not "poor" performance.