Giving someone negative feedback, even when it’s requested, can be uncomfortable. You never know how well your input will be received, and you don’t know what the person will do once they have the information. But people can’t grow unless they know where their gap areas are, says Cheryl Hyatt, partner at Hyatt-Fennell Executive Search.
“It’s important for an employee or candidate to understand why they weren’t moved forward or what they need to do to take the next step in their career,” she says. “Honest feedback is critical, but how that feedback is relayed is more important.”
Before you dive into the truth (as you see it), ask yourself these four questions:
1. What does the person really want to know?
Clarify with the person what they want to know, so you don’t confuse a request for a status update with request for feedback.
“Listing everything you find problematic about a project will not be productive if the person isn’t ready for that information,” says Hyatt. “Read between the lines to suss out what they are actually seeking. A request for feedback might actually be a request for help or approval.”
2. What is my most important observation?
Instead of providing a long list of criticisms, decide what you have to say that offers the most value to the other person.
“Whether criticism or praise, your message will carry more weight when you are thoughtful and selective,” says Hyatt. “You gain credibility and increase your chances of being heard by editing your list and distilling your message down to one or two key points.”
Start by talking about the positive, she suggests. “What positive things are happening?” she asks. “How do people feel about them and their skill sets? Then go into things that are missing. Make sure the feedback you give is something they can learn or acquire.”
And always give this feedback verbally, adds Hyatt. “People need to hear feedback,” she says. “We all know what happens with email; the written tone of message can often get misconstrued.”
3. What is my motivation?
Step back and consider why you’re having a negative reaction to the person. “Are you seeking to show that you’re the smartest person in the department or are you genuinely motivated by a desire to improve the person or project?” asks Hyatt.
Check that your motivation for giving negative feedback is to help. “Be diplomatic and respectful of the person you’re talking with,” she says. “Help them grow; that’s what it’s about.”
4. What will happen if I don’t provide feedback?
As a general rule of thumb, Hyatt doesn’t volunteer information when it hasn’t been requested. However, she steps in if she sees someone heading into a difficult situation.
“Saving someone from an embarrassing outcome can be the kindest thing to do,” she says. “Also think if you don’t provide feedback, positive or negative, people don’t advance. They think what they’re doing is fine. To help them achieve growth potential, it’s important to get feedback.”
Feedback is different than criticism. “People mistake those areas,” says Hyatt. “In order to give feedback, you say, ‘Here are areas where you’re failing. Here’s the potential you have, and here’s the gap.’ Everybody is a lifelong learner, from lower-level employees to the CEO or board members. You have to continue to learn about the skills you need that will help you advance.”