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Negative Feedback: Dos and Don’ts

29 May 2018

At some point in your professional career, you will receive negative feedback from a superior, fellow employee or customer. Nobody wants to receive negative feedback, as it can lead to a lot of self-doubt or resentment for the people that sent the feedback, even if the criticism is valid. Especially when you’ve just started a job or are used to positive feedback, negative feedback can deal a psychological blow to employees that can break their desire to succeed, or even to stay at that job.

When a customer sends in negative feedback about an employee, it can range from understanding criticism to a stinging personal attack which gets thrown in the bin, since it offers no constructive criticism. But when a boss gives negative feedback, it’s not solely motivated by malice or personal interests: a good boss will criticise his employees without insinuating contempt or condescension.

Nevertheless, some employees, perhaps insecure about their job security or self-esteem can take criticism as a personal attack, a condemnation. This is more common to younger or first time employees who may not be used to blunt criticism or the boss’s attitude to criticism, and may begin to resent their boss if the criticism was particularly acerbic or humiliating, like when being chewed out in front of other employees.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a perfect, one size fits all approach to negative feedback. Some people won’t react to negative feedback at all due to low motivation, whereas for others it’s a constant fear and a potential trigger for distress, feeling mistreated and unappreciated. But since employees with no motivation tend to not stick around for long, and sensitive employees can be very highly motivated to do well for a variety of reasons: Needing to hold onto a job, improving their career prospects, dealing with financial issues and so on, a lot of these employees can take on your criticism if it isn’t delivered to them so harshly as to upset them.

The ‘tough love’ approach doesn’t work here, as it looks to the employee as though the criticiser don’t really care about them beyond how much work they can give. Key to delivering negative feedback is either softening it with a compliment on other areas where the employee is excelling at, or if the feedback can’t be softened (e.g. their behaviour or work just isn’t good enough to keep them on without change), make sure the wording of the feedback itself doesn’t read like an accusation, point to the actual benefits of changing to an employee, such as promotion or better pay as positive reinforcement, or make it clear that the feedback is for their own benefit above the company’s benefit.

In the end, negative feedback is supposed to be a bitter medicine: it isn’t nice to take, but avoiding it will just make the illness worse. At the Change Consultancy, we’re excited about taking new technology, methods and workplace philosophy to reinvigorate companies and get them running at maximum efficiency in an age where change is fast and confusing.