How to do Negative

It’s one that can make us squirm more than Stephen King’s last horror story. You know, that chat you need to have with one of your direct reports where you have to point out a big fat negative in their work. Why is it so hard? I’ll tell you why….

  1. You hate the fact that you always have to be the bad guy.
  2. You can’t believe they have made the mistake after you clearly told them how to do it correctly.
  3. You are a nice person. They are a nice person. I don’t want to hurt their feelings.

Giving bad feedback is not an easy thing to do. If anyone says that they find this easy, they are either lying, or maybe they enjoy it a little bit too much. I am guessing you are neither.

No, giving negative feedback is a hard thing to do well as you are potentially hurting your relationship with the person in question, or you are disrupting the positive culture you are trying to create. There are so many aspects of this conversation that can go wrong, and that is never an easy situation to manage. But, there is a big BUT (that didn’t quite come out right… Anyway, here it comes.

BUT, being able to give negative feedback well is an absolutely critical aspect to being able to manage a team well. This is one of the key tools that you need to use to be able to build ability and confidence in your team. There are other great benefits including building trust and increasing closeness in a relationship. Here are some ideas on how to get better at delivering a negative.

  1. Earlier the better – delaying your feedback will reduce the effectiveness of your conversation. Details will be hard to remember, and the person will be less receptive. The term nip-it-in-the-bud can be utilised here. This also stops feelings festering inside of you which can build tension and increases the likelihood of the negative feedback becoming emotionally charged. Giving the feedback swiftly is the best way to go.
  2. Ask instead of tell – Allowing for self-assessment can be a great way to instil learning in the situation and disarm any backlash from the feedback. I find that if I point out faults all the time, it can beat people down, and then as the manager you can labelled as a tyrant. Instead, get the person to do a self-evaluation by asking them “what is out of place with this/what you did/how this turned out” or “how could have this been done better” or “I can spot a problem with this. Can you see it?”. This invites discussion, and gives the person a chance to figure it out themselves, rather than being told what they did was incorrect. It is a great way to turn a potentially negative conversation into a positive one.
  3. Specifics are critical – when giving negative feedback you will cause yourself a world of pain if you are being vague and inattentive. There is a lot of room for misinterpretation, misunderstanding, and confusion. We want to avoid all of these at the best of times. Critically when someone is completing a task poorly using details and examples is essential so be sure to have your facts straight. Preparation is your friend, as per any management discussion.

There are many more tools and ways of delivering negative feedback, but I feel that these are a good start.

One common requirement that needs to be used with any technique in this situation. It is acknowledging THE WAY we deliver our feedback is more important that what we actually say. So be sure to be respectful, keep the feedback as private as possible (no public shaming), and use an appropriate tone.

A positive intension will carry you through most of these important conversations, and like many things – the more you do it, the better you will become at it.