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How to manage the anxiety of giving negative feedback

Just the prospect of giving feedback on another person’s performance can set your heart racing, especially when the intended recipient is more knowledgeable and experienced than the person giving it.  

How to manage the anxiety of giving negative feedback
[Photo: jayk7/Getty Images]

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One of the most integral parts of a manager’s job is providing performance feedback and holding people accountable. So much so that it can’t be abdicated or delegated to someone else. And yet, managers often avoid these types of conversations. Just the prospect of giving feedback on another person’s performance triggers an immediate increase in heart rate—a sign the body is going into “fight-or-flight” mode. The resulting anxiety can be especially stressful when the intended recipient of feedback is more knowledgeable and experienced than the person giving it.  

That was the case for one of my former coaching clients, Maria, a high-potential manager at a U.S.-based multinational robotics company, with direct reports of different generations and levels of experience. A newly minted Ph.D. in System Dynamics, and millennial with only four years of professional experience, Maria dreaded the conversations with her more seasoned team members, where she’d have to deliver developmental feedback she felt would be perceived as “negative and condescending.” As a result, she’d either delay such meetings for months, and then offer only vague feedback that failed to provide clear direction, or she’d skip them altogether, leaving some of her team wondering where they stood with her and whether their performance was up to par, while others simply forged ahead with a “no news is good news” attitude.  

The business impact of her reluctance to provide clear developmental feedback, however, eventually made her the recipient of a blistering performance review by her boss, who pointed out instances of toxic behavior among members of her team toward other colleagues, as well as missed delivery deadlines that resulted in costly delays of scheduled software releases.  

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Over several months of executive coaching, I helped Maria understand and practice the following emotion regulation strategies that made the anticipation and delivery of developmental feedback to more experienced colleagues easier for her and more productive for her team and the greater organization.  

Set expectations from the start

To avoid the emotional buildup to delivering feedback in situations where you’re leading a team of experts, it helps to address the elephant in the room from the moment you join the team. Rather than letting your insecurities lead you to pretend to have more knowledge than you do, acknowledge your senior team members’ experience and expertise upfront and ask for their help in bringing you up to speed.

At the same time, create clarity around your expectations and check on your individual team members’ capabilities to meet them, before agreeing on milestones and what success on a given project or initiative looks like. Let them know that you’ll be providing regular feedback along the way so people know where they stand in terms of their performance, and that you’ll be asking for theirs as well, to learn how you can be more helpful in supporting them. 

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Managers who follow through on holding people accountable and provide feedback in a timely manner gain the respect of their team and avoid the emotional buildup that stems from lingering assumptions and lack of communication.  

Short-circuit your emotions

According to Stanford University psychology professor James Gross, we can reduce the intensity of negative emotions by using science-backed emotion regulation strategies to intervene in the four-step process that generally gives rise to emotions such as fear, anger, and sadness.  

The process starts with a situation—real or imagined. In my client Maria’s case it was typically the thought of providing performance feedback to more experienced team members. One strategy to keep your anxiety in check at this stage of the emotion generation process would be what Gross calls situation avoidance. By choosing to not engage in a threatening situation, you will in most cases avoid the anxiety that arises from it, such as in driving to a destination when flying makes you anxious. However, this strategy isn’t really an option for a manager whose job requires giving regular feedback to subordinates. You can modify the situation by, for instance, choosing a more optimal day and time for delivering feedback, when team members aren’t under heightened pressure to deliver against a deadline. This allows you to take some control and imagine the stressful situation in a more relaxed setting, alleviating some of the anxiety you might feel in anticipating the event.   

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The second step is the attention paid to a particular, often threatening aspect of a situation. Maria had focused primarily on the anticipated negative reaction team members would have in response to her feedback, fueling her anxiety. The intervention strategy in this step of the emotion generation process would involve intentionally changing your focus, and instead of ruminating about something negative that might happen, focusing instead on positive aspects, such as a feedback recipient’s leadership potential or the value they contribute to the team and the organization.  

The third step is what Gross calls appraisal. So when Maria would think of providing negative feedback (the situation), and focused (attention) on what she expected would be strongly negative reactions by her team, the meaning (appraisal) she assigned to providing feedback was that her team would resent her “incompetence” and hate working for her. Our appraisal of a situation then leads to the fourth step in the emotion-generation process, the emotional response, which for Maria was debilitating anxiety that kept her from executing her managerial duties.   

After gaining insight into the neurological process by which her anxieties were generated, Maria learned she could take control and change the meaning she assigned to the act of providing feedback, rather than defaulting to the automatic assumption her brain made that her team would resent her.  

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With practice, she successfully reframed the meaning of the anxiety-inducing situation in productive ways, such as:

  • my team will appreciate my honesty
  • no one wants to be in the dark about their performance
  • by not providing certain feedback, I am cheating my team out of the opportunity to grow
  • we can’t win as a team if we’re not aware of our strengths and weaknesses

There is no limit to the more productive frames we can generate to change the meaning of a threatening situation. I had asked Maria to generate no less than 30 different positive frames for the task of providing feedback to her team. As a result, she weakened the initial negative framing she would automatically default to when thinking about giving feedback, and adopted a more positive and productive view of this practice which not only rid her of her anxiety, it also earned her the respect of her team, and her boss.  


Harrison Monarth is the CEO and founder of Gurumaker and author of Executive Presence: The Art of Commanding Respect Like a CEO.

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