Can you give negative feedback without being … negative?

ManagementNothing like a little negative feedback to start your day off right, eh?

Yes, that was sarcasm. Few managers awaken each day salivating over having to set someone straight.

We are reluctant to have that tough conversation, even when experience assures us that it’s the only way to salvage a situation – or better still – could lead to real improvement.

Yet according to the Harvard Business Review, it doesn’t have to be that way.

A recent HBR survey found employees actually want – and some crave – the negative feedback you hate to give.

You're Fired!
Sound too good to be true? The piece goes on to say that what matters more than what is said is how it’s said.

A whopping 92% of respondents agreed that “negative feedback, if delivered appropriately, is effective at improving performance.”

Open to criticism?

HBR made three other worthwhile observations:

  1. People who find it difficult and stressful to deliver negative feedback also were significantly less willing to receive it well themselves.
  2. Those who rated their managers as highly effective at providing them with honest, straightforward feedback tended to score significantly higher on their preference for receiving corrective feedback.
  3. There appears to be a strong positive correlation between a person’s confidence level and his or her preference for receiving negative feedback.

No doubt the survey was well researched and conducted. But not everyone was in agreement.

“As a negative-feedback giver who has learned to rein it in, I have to strongly disagree,” read a comment about the HRB piece, as posted on “People may have all sorts of reasons for saying or even believing they want to receive negative feedback, but in my considerable experience, they don’t want to hear it”

So there!

In real life, it is very hard to get around  the Jane, you ignorant slut Syndrome.

No one who heard Dan Ackroyd make that statement on Saturday Night Live in the late-70s had any doubt that he was about to strongly disagree with whatever Jane Curtin had just said. The problem was he was going to disagree not with what was said, but with who said it.

Which is why negative feedback is so, um, negative.

“One of the biggest problems I see among employees, especially younger ones, is they take negative feedback as a personal attack,” says Eve Tahmincioglu, a career blogger and director of communications at Families and Work Institute. “I’ll admit I’ve done this myself early in my career – but there’s no way to get the most out of negative remarks that way.”

Clear goals

Once it’s clear people are taking the feedback the wrong way, something else tends to happen: the manager often grows weary from delivering the same critique to the same people, and instead of feedback, the manager vents.

From there, the goals get lost in the fog, everything gets a bit muddier and everybody a bit more bewildered, which is not what you had in mind when you started.

In the end, it seems, negative feedback works best on good people.

A recent research paper, “Tell Me What I did Wrong: Experts Seek and Respond to Negative Feedback,” in The Journal of Consumer Research, says that when people are experts on a subject, or consider themselves experts, they’re more eager to hear negative feedback, while novices are more likely to resent negative critics.

So there!

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