How to handle negative feedback at work: Giving feedback


As discussed in part 1 of our blog on handling negative feedback, no one generally enjoys having difficult conversations in the workplace. Hearing that you are doing a bad job can be unpleasant and hard to swallow, but telling someone they are not performing well or have made a mistake can also be tricky and uncomfortable.

Of course, giving or receiving negative feedback can be a positive experience if handled correctly, which can help create a more healthy and honest working environment. Giving someone constructive feedback can help them assess their effectiveness and allow them to develop and improve in their role, but if you deliver the negative news, it can seem a little daunting, and you may have concerns about damaging relationships and causing conflict.

To help both the providers and recipients of negative feedback, we have compiled some valuable tips to help ensure that the conversation goes smoothly and that a constructive outcome can be achieved. In this second part of our blog series on the subject, we focus on how to handle giving negative feedback at work effectively:

1. Create a safe environment – To reduce any possible stress on both participants immediately, ensure that the meeting is held in a private space and reassure the other party that the impending conversation will remain confidential so that you can speak openly. It can also be a good idea to find when you won’t have to dash off to your next meeting so that you and the feedback receiver don’t feel rushed and unable to communicate what you have to say entirely.

2. Be mindful of your tone and emotions – To effectively convey your feedback, it is crucial to control your emotions. You could take time to clear your head and relax before starting the meeting by taking a walk, getting a coffee or practising mindfulness techniques. This will allow you to speak evenly and confidently, which can improve your ability to deliver the information clearly and provide facts without sounding overly harsh or judgemental. Equally, suppose you feel overly emotional about how what you have to say may upset the other party. In that case, you can end up ‘sugar-coating’ your feedback which can dilute the message, making the feedback less beneficial to the receiver. 

3. Empathise - Be assertive and compassionate when making your point. Strive to deliver negative feedback accurately while letting the receiver know you understand that the information may be hard to hear. This can go a long way to a more open and productive discussion where the other party feels more relaxed and less defensive. Showing you empathise can significantly assist in avoiding unnecessary conflict in such situations.

4. Don’t make it personal – Avoid making the feedback feel like a personal attack, as this can cause the recipient to become closed and defensive, which, in turn, will lead to a less effective learning opportunity. Instead, try to focus on the issues and actions related to work. This can help detach the problem from the person so that the recipient will hopefully find it easier to digest the feedback instead of feeling like the negativity is an assault on their character.  

5. Be constructive – Where possible, don’t just criticise. Providing specific examples of what has gone wrong can help clarify issues and expectations for the future. In addition, suggesting practical ideas about solving problems can help move the conversation to a more positive conclusion and give the other person something tangible to take away and work on. If support is available within the business, offer this to show that you are looking to help and not just judge. Perhaps there are mentoring programmes to support staff or even mental health services available to employees if the person is struggling in their role. It is often a good idea to create an action plan with review points to provide structure for the next steps.

6. Active Listening – This trait is necessary for both parties in a practical discussion. Listening with the intention of understanding rather than just waiting for your turn to speak is vital to show that the other person has your respect and the space to talk freely. It can help avoid a discussion from becoming an argument and show that you are willing to see the situation from another person’s perspective. As the giver of negative feedback, active listening allows the receiver to explain their actions or the circumstances that led to the issue. Showing that you are willing to hear their side of things, even if you disagree with what they say, can help build trust meaning the recipient is likely to be more truthful and take on board your feedback more readily.

7. The ‘feedback sandwich’ - This is a longstanding technique where experts have often advised giving negative feedback sandwiched between two pieces of positive feedback to soften the blow and make the recipient feel a little better about themselves. However, some research now suggests that the sandwich approach can be counterproductive and not benefit the receiver. There are two reasons for this; the first is that it can create the perception that the person is doing ok, so they don’t take on board the negative part, and secondly, people tend to focus on the last thing they hear, so ending with a positive might water down the negative feedback you were trying to communicate, thus making the whole discussion less effective. That is not to say that you can’t say anything positive during the feedback session, as this can be useful to put someone at ease and remind them that they have other strengths, but it is advisable to use the ’sandwich’ with caution.

Overall, the most favourable outcomes should hail from discussions where both parties actively listen, empathise with each other’s situation and make a constructive and practical plan of action to move from a place of negativity and poor performance to a place of growth and achievement. Both the giver and receiver of negative feedback should aim to follow up and review progress along the way to maintain a healthy working relationship and create genuinely positive outcomes.

If you are looking to develop your role in HR or if you are looking for professionals to join your team, contact our expert recruiters at McGregor Boyall today and find out how we can help you.