How to Deliver Negative Feedback that Doesn’t Hurt

BY Kathy Crosett
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When it’s time to deliver negative feedback to a team member, the way you handle the situation as a manager can make a big difference. Researchers Francesca Gino, at Harvard, et al, have announced detailed findings on this topic in their new working paper “Shopping for Confirmation: How Threatening Feedback Leads People to Reshape Their Social Networks.” Their analysis shows how challenging the feedback task can be for you and the organization.

Gwen Moran, who summarized this study in a Fast Company article, points out the great irony regarding feedback. You can likely point to a previous boss, coach or teacher who straight-​up delivered some bad news to you, perhaps even in an insulting way. You might have been told to practice harder, work harder or rewrite a sloppy paper until you got it right. As hard as it was to get that feedback, it probably had the intended effect – you are a better individual because you wanted to succeed, you listened and you changed.

In the workplace, encouraging a team member to improve his performance is more complicated. Each employee has a self-​image, which is often reinforced by the folks he befriends in the workplace. When the supervisor delivers bad news, the employee tends to react negatively, because what he heard doesn't align with his self-​image. He may withdraw, especially from his supervisor. The researchers point out this is normal behavior within the realm of self-​preservation. This reaction is not what any manager hopes for, especially if he’s working hard to improve “the social fabric of the organization.”

Traditional feedback systems, in which managers review how employees are excelling and failing, just don’t work well. This reality is especially true in flat, action-​oriented organizations where professionals are expected to contribute as valued team members. When encountering a traditional performance appraisal, some employees will only hear the praise aspect of the review and never grasp where they need to improve. Other employees will obsess over the bad news and fall even further behind on the performance track.

The researchers suggest managers engage in conversations designed to help the employee raise his self-​awareness soon after a negative incident occurs. Instead of using the traditional review approach, ask your team member to join you for a cup of coffee. Draw him out by asking questions about the incident, a tactic which highlights where his performance needs improvement. If you can get your team member to self-​evaluate, you may be able to ameliorate the negative feelings that accompany undesirable feedback and get him on the right track.