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Negative Feedback – Can They Handle It?

Last week I was talking with a friend who works for a large investment bank. He said, “I don’t believe in the premise of your book. There is no place for negative feedback in the workplace. It’s just not possible.” And I’m seeing firsthand how hard it is for people to receive negative feedback. All kinds of people – sensitive people and less sensitive people, Type A and laid back types. No one wants to hear she made a mistake, could have done something better, or any other type of negative feedback. It’s just too hard.

This is a massive conflict for me. At Candid Culture, we teach people how to give and receive feedback and yet, here I am wondering if it’s even possible.

We need to be able to tell people what they can do better. And the truth, is, while people may not want to hear negative feedback, most people do want to know what they can do to improve their performance and get ahead, hence the quandary. Give negative feedback and evoke others’ defensiveness or say nothing and put up with whatever isn’t working? I, of course, would prefer that you give the feedback, believing that it empowers people to make better personal and professional choices. The question is how?

Here are six steps to make giving negative feedback possible:

  1. Set the expectation at the onset of working relationships that you will give and receive balanced (positive and negative) feedback regularly. If you’ve worked with people for years and have not set this expectation, it’s not too late. Simply say, “I realized we don’t give each other a lot of feedback. In the spirit of continuous improvement, I’d like to implement a weekly debrief during which we talk about what’s working and not working. We’ll give each other feedback during the meetings.”
  1. Assess candidate’s openness to feedback when you interview, and don’t hire people who don’t accept negative feedback. We do practical interviews at Candid Culture. We give candidates a chance to do some of the work they’ll be doing on the job and tell candidates what they can do to improve, during the interview. Then we see how they accept our feedback. We also ask interview questions that help elucidate whether or not candidates are open to feedback and we ask candidates’ references how well the person accepts negative feedback.
  1. Observe performance regularly and provide balanced feedback from the start. Don’t wait until a problem occurs or until you have time to give feedback. Begin the practice of meeting weekly to review and discuss work, setting the precedent that this is the way you do business.
  1. Provide positive feedback regularly so people know the good stuff and aren’t solely focused on the negative feedback they receive.
  1. Ask for and be open to feedback. When you demonstrate being open to feedback, you earn the right to give feedback.
  1. Lastly, don’t underestimate how hard it is to hear negative feedback. When some people receive negative feedback, they begin to question themselves, their skills, and their value. So tread lightly. Pick your battles. Address only what you really need to and say things gingerly, remembering that you’re talking to a sensitive person, no matter how tough he may seem.

Negative Feedback

About 

Shari Harley is the founder and President of Candid Culture, a Denver-based training firm that is bringing candor back to the workplace, making it easier to give feedback at work. Shari is the author of the business communication book How to Say Anything to Anyone: A Guide to Building Business Relationships that Really Work. She is a keynote speaker at conferences and does training throughout the U.S. Learn more about Shari Harley and Candid Culture’s training programs at www.candidculture.com.

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3 Responses to “Negative Feedback – Can They Handle It?”

  1. Randy says:

    I’m with your friend; nobody likes negative feedback. I honestly don’t believe there is much need for it unless a person has done something egregious enough to warrant some sort of swift corrective action. in my opinion, it does boil down to communications of expectations, and that can be done without focus on what was done incorrectly, or not to your liking.

    It boils down to helping people succeed. Coaching them to be better. Suggestions, or even a firm expectations being set, lands much better than pointing out how bad you did something that is already in the past. I’ve heard you demonstrate this in saying, “I’d like to see less of this, and more of this” .

  2. Tim says:

    Words certainly have the power to shape someone’s life, so it’s best to do it as carefully as possible. Negative feedback is necessary to know what and how to improve. It’s just the method that often sends people away. This reminds me of the book by Alexandra Cassavant titled The Voiceless Voice. It’s a good read to reflect on how the things we say affect us and our environment.

  3. Thanks for sharing this information. The article on Expense management software was really useful.

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