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There’s an Art to Presenting Negative Feedback

May 3, 2021
When it’s not done well, corrective input can prompt a fight, flight or freeze reflex.

Effective feedback is a key leadership tool. It nudges the organization toward actions and behaviors that are in line with desired culture and vision and leadership’s expectations. Feedback consists of observing and recognizing both positive and negative actions and behaviors, identifying the impact of those actions or behaviors, and setting expectations for the future, whether it be more of the positive or less of the negative actions.

Positive feedback is straightforward in providing those three elements. The challenge for positive feedback is noticing the things going on around us and taking the one or two minutes necessary to provide feedback.

Negative or corrective feedback, on the other hand, can present challenges. In fact, when negative feedback is not done well, there is a risk of damaging results. One of the greatest risks is that negative feedback can prompt a fight, flight or freeze reflex. We may not see that reflex physically, but it can be taking place mentally in the midst of our feedback, therefore blocking the clear reception of what we are saying. The result can be a misunderstanding or misinterpretation of the message that we thought we were delivering.

Here are some tips on providing negative or corrective feedback well, so that the end result is positive, both in terms of relationship and future actions and behaviors:

Take time to communicate: If the only, or most frequent, communication that we have with a team member is when we point out the negative, we can already be defeated before we open our mouths. They know what is coming and they are tired of hearing what they feel is a critical attitude. Leadership is built upon a foundational relationship of mutual trust and respect. We build this relationship through knowing the other and allowing them to know our authentic selves. This requires a pattern of communication including both personal topics as well as business and job-related discussions.

Commit to people development: When our team members know that we place a high priority on helping them grow and develop, it is easy for them to see feedback, even when it is pointing out something that needs to be changed or improved, as based on our desire for their positive development. Therefore, we need to know our team members’ strengths and weakness and their hopes and dreams. We need to have periodic discussions of how they might grow and how we can help that happen. And they need to see action behind our words.

Start with some positives: John Gottman, in his studies on relationships, found that negative comments or interactions have a much greater impact than positive ones. In order to balance out the impact, he suggests that leaders provide five to 10 positives for every negative. Putting this in action in feedback could mean that we start a discussion where we plan to provide some corrective input with at least a couple of things that we appreciate about the person. Having heard a couple of positive comments, the recipient is more likely to hear and accept the corrective part.

Ask permission: When we are invited in, the reception is warmer. Sometimes we need to solicit that invitation by asking permission. This can be as simple as “During your presentation I noticed something that you might improve. Could I give you some feedback?”

Show clarity of purpose: A statement of intent can make it clear that our intention is not to criticize but to help in the recipient’s growth and development. “I think that your next presentation will be better received if I could suggest something.”

Present impacts that are clear and tangible: Feedback consists of three elements: identifying the specific action or behavior observed; describing the impact, both on the feedback presenter personally and on the organization; and setting the expectations for the future as more of positive actions or less of the negative actions or behaviors. By clearly communicating the impact, we make it clear that we are nudging the person towards a better future.

Discuss a plan for growth and development: Feedback is always forward focused. One of the ways of demonstrating that our goal is to help the recipient’s development is to not stop with the expectation of change but to continue with a discussion and definition of an action plan for growth.

Follow up: Especially in the heat of the moment, the best communication of corrective feedback might be construed by the recipient as criticism. Circling back around to discuss the action or behavior and the feedback discussion in an hour, a day or a week can make it clear that we are identifying something that we consider serious and that requires some development.

Feedback always needs to be tailored to the situation. Of course, there are times when we observe a behavior that might even require disciplinary action or the definition of consequences upon a second offense. Even in these circumstances, we want the recipient to clearly understand the feedback. If they are going to be escorted out the door, they deserve to understand clearly what offense was committed and why it cannot be tolerated.

Feedback keeps our organization on the path of development and improvement. Feedback is an essential tool of effective leadership. As with all of leadership, communications and relationships lie at the foundation of success. Communications and relationships are both the means of and the result of effective feedback. When done well, all feedback can be a positive investment in a team member’s future.

Ken Vaughan is president of New Horizon Partners, Inc., a business strategy consulting and leadership coaching and development organization. 

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