The Art of Giving Negative Feedback



Have you ever experience receiving negative feedback from your superiors or colleagues?

What was your feeling at that moment?

What's your reaction on the spot?

I believe different people would have behave differently to such situation.

While we would like to behave appropriately in such situation, but in actual fact, reality is much more complicated.

There are several factors which affect our behaviours including our EQ, who was giving the feedback, how do we perceived that person, the ocassion where the feedback was given and how the feedback was given.

Paul Green, a doctoral candidate at Harvard Business School, and his colleagues conducted a study on this and their studies revealed that critical appraisals from colleagues drove employees to adjust their roles to be around people who would give them more-positive reviews.

In other words, people tend to move away from those people who give negative feedback, and move towards to people who provide confirming feedback.



When we receive "disconfirming feedback", it is natural for us to distance ourselves from these people.

Such feedback easily trigger negative emotions and most people would prefer avoid such emotions.

Interestingly, we tend to seek positive emotions after we have experienced negative emotional experience.

In order to fulfill our emotional needs, we tend to look for new and different relationships, relationships which can provide "confirming feedback".

The rationale behind this is that most people need "confirming feedback" to establish self-worth.

With self-worth, people find feelings like? valuable, appreciated, wanted, etc among the people they are connected with.

Thus, self-worth is one of the glues which keeps social connection together.

In summary, the more negative feedback they received, the further the employees would go to forge new networks.

This phenomenon was observed in Paul's lab study as well.

Generally speaking, if the person who offered negative feedback is not someone whom the recipient had to work with, the recipient is likely to "disappear" from that social network.

If the working relationship is unavoidable, then the recipient would look out in the organization for other people to connect with to offset the feedback.

They begin to form more relationships with people in different departments or other offices.

This behaviour can be known as "shopping for confirmation".

One typical example to illustrate this is people who like to gossip about others tend to connect better.

Being in such group fulfill their psychological need for confirmation through talking bad about others.

One interesting phenomenon to observe, once someone realizes that he or she becomes one of the topics in the group's gossip, he or she will leave this group and move on to another group.



Does that mean negative feedback do not work?

Before we could reasonably answer this question, we need to go back to the fundamental.

The idea behind performance appraisals, and feedback in general, is that to grow and improve.

We must have a light shined on the things we can't see about ourselves.

We need the brutal truth.

There is an assumption that what motivates people to improve is the realization that they are not as good as they think they are.

While there is some truth in these, in reality, not everyone is ready to receive the truth.

Thus, it may not be having the intended effect at all.

While feedback will motivate people to perform a certain way, it also motivates people to do other things as well.

While there are some people who are motivated to improve themselves at work, people come to work with many other motivations.

One thing to remember, all employees have a psychological need, i.e. to feel valued.

Negative feedback, if not properly communicated, may be perceived to be disapproving past contributions.

When such perception kicks in, negative feedback may not be received with an open mind, let alone seeing any improvement action taken.

We need to constantly remind ourselves the purpose of giving feedback.

It is never about we having the opportunity to say it.



Someone asked me before whether they should bookend negative feedback with a positive feedback.

This is not really a good approach.

Giving feedback is not about itemizing feedback, one negative feedback follow by one positive feedback, then by another negative feedback.

The essence of such communication is that people need to feel valued.

Once people feel valued, they will be open to receive negative feedback.

They would be more willing to accept the feedback as they view it "non threatening".

The way to communicate negative feedback is to accompany negative feedback with validation of who people are and of their value to the organization.

We can do so by first creating a broader confirming and positive relationship.

When people feel that they are valued in the relationship, then it is likely for them to receive the negative feedback and work for improvement.

The desire for improvement will be there because they would want to further entrench their value in the relationship.

Besides creating a confirming relationship, another essential element in communicating negative feedback is sincerity.

Without sincerity, it will be difficult for the recipient to accept what we said.

Imagine we tell people how important they are, but no one believes what we said, the effect is likely to be worse than not saying anything.

When we tell people that we value them, we want them to feel that we really mean what we said.

Citing real examples and facts tend to work in favour for this purpose.



As a manager or leader, sometimes we need to provide negative feedback to our subordinates or colleagues.

If we think that we have the right to say it and then expect the recipient to accept whatever we said, then perhaps, we are a bit too na?ve.

We have to be aware that generally people don't welcome negative feedback and thus, will hardly act on it for improvement.

Instead, we need to take one step backward and make the recipient feels valued and accepted.

It is only under such condition, the recipient is likely to view our negative feedback positively and eventually work on their improvement.

Remember, communication without sincerity is as good as firing a rifle without bullet.