To be an effective leader and manager, you need to be skilled at giving out both praise and criticism. While praise is easy to give, it is far more challenging and unpleasant to criticize your employees. Yet the practice of management requires you to occasionally show employees where they need to improve. Thus, it is vital for managers to learn how and when to give negative feedback.
The first thing to realize is that people generally respond more strongly to negative events than positive ones.
In other words, we are usually more upset about losing $100 than we are happy about winning $100. In fact, in his book – (Why Marriages Succeed or Fail: And How You Can Make Yours Last) – John Gottman, suggested that positive interactions must outnumber negative interactions by at least five to one in order for a marriage to succeed.
This observation is also true in the workplace, as Professor Andrew Miner and colleagues discovered in a study published in 2005. They recorded employees’ moods several times each day and, each time, asked them if any events (such as a positive interaction with a co-worker) had occurred within the past few hours.
Their results showed that employees reacted to a negative interaction with their boss six times more strongly than they reacted to a positive interaction with their boss. This suggests that negative feedback can have significant adverse effects on an employee’s well-being — and, presumably, their productivity.
What does this observation mean for managers? Put simply, managers need to be cautious before criticizing employees.
To start with, you should avoid inadvertently criticizing any of your employees. For instance, if an employee writes a first draft of a written document, some managers might want to suggest some minor revisions even if the draft was generally good. In these situations, managers should clearly communicate that their revisions are merely suggestions coming from a second pair of eyes — and that they aren’t criticizing their employee’s performance.
More generally, managers need to weigh the trade-offs involved in making negative feedback. If you criticize your employees, you will likely provide some corrective information, but you will also put your employee in a bad mood. If an error is so inconsequential that the corrective value of criticism is low, it might make sense for you to keep that feedback to yourself.
Of course, there are situations when a manager must provide negative feedback. On these occasions, don’t lose sight of your purpose for offering that feedback: to improve the employee’s performance going forward. As much as you might want to excoriate your employee for what you believe is a spectacularly awful performance, your business gains nothing from it.
In fact, shaming your employee is likely to have substantial negative effects on your business. In their research, Christine Porath and Christine Pearson, found that many employees considered themselves to be on the receiving end of workplace incivility, such as overly harsh criticism from their boss. According to their research, nearly half of these employees decide to intentionally decrease their productivity.
Instead, in order to obtain the desired corrective effects of negative feedback, you should take steps to soften the emotional blow. You want your employees to focus on the message that you’re trying to convey, rather than any intense negative emotions.
At a bare minimum, make sure to deliver your criticism in private. There’s nothing more humiliating than being criticized in front of your co-workers. And it is critical to keep your tone collaborative. Make clear that your employee still has your support and your respect.
One strategy for providing feedback is to start by literally saying, “Let me provide you with some feedback.” That statement lets the employee prepare emotionally for what you’re about to say; in my experience, it also seems to activate the calm, rational part of the employee’s brain rather than the defensive, emotional part.
Negative feedback is a key tool in the effective manager’s kit. But you must use it wisely and carefully, or else they will do more harm than good. Focus on potential future improvements, instead of dwelling on past errors. And think twice whether an error truly requires negative feedback: criticism can have an unexpectedly large impact on an employee’s happiness and productivity.
And this approach should be generally reversed when it comes to praise. Unlike criticism, managers should bestow their employees with praise generously, publicly, and at every opportunity — especially at the culmination of projects. While most bosses seem to think that they dole out praise by the dozen, I rarely meet an employee who feels that the boss sufficiently values his or her achievements. So, as often as possible, tell your employees how much you appreciate their commitment and hard work.
ADVISES ON GIVING FEEDBACK TO AN INDIVIDUAL
Fundamentally, feedback is a good thing. For managers, it’s an important tool for shaping behaviors and fostering learning that will drive better performance. For their direct reports, it’s an opportunity for development and career growth.
Why, then, is it so problematic? Most managers say they dislike giving feedback and don’t think it’s as effective as it could be. Those on the receiving end say they don’t get enough feedback they can actually use.
Many reasons account for this disconnect. Strong emotions on both sides, a focus on character rather than on behavior, and a lack of clarity about what needs to change and why are just a few of the factors that can undermine a feedback session.
Focus on business outcomes
Business outcomes should be your starting place for giving feedback: You need to develop talent, boost sales, improve service. When feedback is framed as a means to reach a specific business goal, it becomes an opportunity to solve a problem rather than criticize.
This opportunity is not geared only to the manager. When feedback is focused on the employee’s development, that makes it a lot more helpful. Feedback becomes a gift of someone investing in the recipient’s career.
Give feedback often
Feedback works best when it’s a continual process rather than a formal session once or twice a year. In fact, experts agree that the yearly performance appraisal is the worst time to surprise an employee with negative feedback. You’re nervous, and so is the employee. With pulse rates up and adrenaline flowing, the natural response is fight or flight, not the thoughtfulness an effective feedback session requires.
Practice giving feedback often; soon it will become a habit. Praise good performance right away. When negative feedback is required, talk with the employee within 24 hours.
If you’ve managed your direct reports for a while, you’ve drawn conclusions about them. That’s fine, but don’t let these conclusions lead you astray in a feedback session. For instance, saying something like “You’re unprofessional” is a recipe for disaster. A character attack provides no information and doesn’t offer any actionable ideas for change.
Before a feedback session, find concrete data that may or may not support your conclusions. Your goal is to gather evidence that will allow you to describe:
- Specific behavior. Be specific about what the person has done or not done, without judging her intent. Avoid statements that begin “You always. . .” or “You never. . .”
- The impact of that behavior. Tell the person how her behavior is affecting you, the team, or the business.
- What you want the person to do differently. Your employee can’t read your mind. Be explicit about what needs to change.
Don’t assume you’re right
Even after you’ve collected your data, you might not have the complete picture. Other people may not see this person’s behavior as you do. Furthermore, the employee will have his own side of the story. Difficult feedback is rarely about getting the facts right, It’s about conflicting views, feelings, and values. Reasonable people differ about all these things.
Approach the feedback session with the goal of getting a complete and accurate picture of the situation. Just as you want your employee to listen with a willingness to be influenced by what he hears, you need to be willing to be influenced by what you hear.
To make this a learning conversation for both you and your employee, ask questions to get her thinking:
How do you see the situation?
How might you do things differently next time?
What do you think worked, and what could have gone better?
Questions like these establish a supportive atmosphere in which the employee can explore alternative approaches that might produce better results. The more an individual thinks about improving her performance, the more committed she is to making it happen.
Because managers dread giving feedback, they like to feel that once they’ve had the conversation, they’re done. Not so fast! There is a big difference between understanding and changing. Your employees’ ability to make that leap requires ongoing support. Thus, follow-through is vital. Ask, “Now what are the next steps you will take, and how can I support your progress?” Plan to meet again in a month.
Consider yourself a catalyst for the change you’d like to see. Suggest specific steps that will help the employee work on performance gaps. Cannon recommends having him gather his own data by asking peers or subordinates for feedback and suggestions on a particular performance area.
Gather feedback on how you give feedback
Is giving feedback an area in which you need to improve? At the end of a feedback session, ask what your employee thought of the conversation and how you can be more helpful.
OK, BUT WHAT ABOUT WHEN IT COMES TO TEAMS…?
Business books, magazines, and blogs are chock full of advice about how to give feedback to individuals, but how do you do the same for your entire team? What type of constructive criticism is appropriate in a group setting? How much is too much? And how should your colleagues help?
What the Experience say
Providing feedback isn’t solely the team leader’s responsibility. For starters, that would be impractical. You can’t be the only one holding everyone accountable because you can’t possibly observe everything that’s going on. Second, if you’re the only one praising or critiquing, group dynamics suffer. You want to give everyone the opportunity to say his piece. Your job as manager is to ensure that team members are providing regular constructive feedback. There needs to be an expectation within the team this is a shared leadership responsibility. Here are some principles to help you lay the groundwork for ensuring and enhancing this effective team practice.
Set expectations early
When a team works well together, it’s because its members are operating from the same mindset and are clear about their goals and their norms. At the start of a new project, help your direct reports decide how they’re going to work together — and importantly, how they will hold each other accountable. Come up with an explicit agreement about how the team will handle issues like the division of labor and deadlines. Stipulate, for example, that if a colleague knows he is going to miss an important deadline for his portion of a project, he must email the team at least 24 hours in advance. If someone doesn’t follow through on the expectations the team created, he’ll get feedback from the group about what happened because he fell short.
Create opportunities for regular check-ins
There’s no hard-and-fast rule about how often your team should meet to review how things are going, but in general, it’s better to start out with more structure and relax it over time, than to start out with too little structure and have to impose it later. When you’re in the early stages of creating a project plan, schedule regular check-ins as part of the timeline. If the team is running smoothly you can always cancel the meeting.
Ask general questions
Giving and receiving feedback is a skill and most people are not naturally good at it. One of your goals is to develop your team’s capacity to give feedback and help people get used to articulating how they feel the team is doing. Take baby steps. At the second or third check-in, ask the group general questions such as, “On a scale of one to five, how well is the team sharing the workload? What needs to change?” As the leader, you’re the moderator of this conversation. Once team members have spoken, offer your two cents about where the team excels and where it faces challenges.
Work your way up to structured reviews
As your team gets accustomed to working together and sharing feedback, you need to do a deeper dive into how team members are doing at the individual level. Ask each person to prepare specific reviews of colleagues to be read aloud at the next meeting. Every team member should say one thing they appreciate about the other members and one thing that would be helpful if they did differently. The aim is to help people understand how their behavior is impacting others. If they hear the same kind of feedback from multiple people, that is powerful. When it’s your turn, you should validate your observations with others. Ask: ‘Are you seeing things the same way?’ Get other people’s reactions.
Keep performance issues out in the open
The management mantra for giving individuals feedback is: “Praise in public, criticize in private.” But in team settings, this goes out the window. In the traditional view, it’s inappropriate to raise issues in a meeting that would make people uncomfortable or put people on the spot. But your job as a leader is not always to make people feel comfortable. When teams have problems, it should all be out in the open. You alone can’t help people improve; there needs to be a group plan. After you’ve harnessed the power of the group to prompt change, one-on-one conversations with struggling colleagues are then in order. Say to them: ‘What did you hear from the team? How are you going to do things differently? And how can I help?’”
Foster team relationships
Conflicts between coworkers are inevitable. But you can’t just say, ‘I’ll handle it,’ because [as the manager] you can’t solve a problem to which you’re not a primary stakeholder. You can coach people on how to have difficult conversations, and you can help facilitate those conversations, but team members need to address issues where the inter-dependencies lie. Help colleagues build trust before problems arise by encouraging open conversation. And, when there is conflict, make sure they understand, they need to give feedback directly to each other. The only way good work gets done is through good relationships — the better the relationship, the better the work.
Debrief every project
At the end of a project or when your team is disbanding, schedule a final check-in to discuss what worked and what didn’t, what should we bring forward and what should we do differently next time. Take careful notes: the information gleaned in this session should not only be part of the organization’s final project review, but also part of each team member’s annual performance appraisal. The objective is to provide closure on the team and also determine what each member needs to do to further develop.
Principles to Remember
- Make sure your team understands that feedback is a shared leadership responsibility
- Schedule routine check-in meetings
- Keep the tone positive by encouraging team members to say what they appreciate about others’ contributions
- Start meetings with your own feedback for the team — allow everyone else to first express how they think they’re doing
- Shy away from performance issues — address them openly with the group
- Get in the middle of personality conflicts — help facilitate difficult conversations
Case study #1: Create opportunities for team and individual reflection
Once every quarter, Laree Daniel — chief administrative officer of Aflac, the insurance company — assembles an ad hoc team around a particular customer incident for an in-depth feedback session. “I take a customer case study in which we either did very well or very poorly, and I gather everyone that touched the customer in some form,” she says.
First, Laree makes sure everyone is up to speed. Team members are given a packet of information that includes a write-up of the incident, transcripts of phone calls, copies of customer letters, and copies of the company’s responses. Next, she poses a series of questions to the team: What worked well? Where were the gaps? What can we do better?
The goal, she says, is to get the team to reflect on the company’s behavior from both the customer’s perspective and shareholder’s. “This isn’t about blame and I’m not scolding anyone,” she says. “I am the facilitator and I make it a neutral environment.”
During these feedback meetings, colleagues often have epiphanies. “They realize: ‘I didn’t know [my behavior] would have that impact,” she says. “It becomes a dynamic learning experience.”
The feedback and information she picks up from those meetings are used to make process improvements. “Often the best ideas come from those people who were closest to the work.”
Case study #2: Focus on empowering your team
David S. Rose, the angel investor and CEO of Gust — a platform for the sourcing and management of early-stage investments — has a simple approach when it comes to giving group feedback. “The goal is not to depress the team,” he says. “I try to keep everything upbeat and lay out our strengths and our challenges.
A few years ago, for instance, he was involved in leading a 15-person technical team at a software company. The group’s biggest issue was its disappointing B2B product suite. “Customers were unhappy and the front-end salespeople were being yelled at,” he says. “As a team, we had some good individual contributors but we needed to get better at working together. I couldn’t just walk in and give feedback along the lines of: ‘These products are terrible; you’re all fired.’ We needed to identify the organizational problems and come up with a prescription for a path forward.”
He broke the team into subgroups of two or three people, and he tasked each with brainstorming how to manage a particular inter-team challenge. The subgroups then provided feedback to everyone else; based on that, the team developed a strategy to improve workflow and communication. “We came up with a plan and the whole team felt empowered,” he says. “We knew what the problems were and we figured out how to solve them.”
Within nine months, he says, the products were in far better shape.