How to Give Negative Feedback

Before we delve into the question of how to give negative feedback, first let’s clarify feedback terminology.

Note: This section overall theme (Management Skills) is about the tools to help managers manage the performance of their direct reports; hence this is the focus of this feedback page too – however, these ideas are helpful to anyone in a feedback giving position.

There are only four types of feedback that you can give to your direct report:

- Positive feedback
- Constructive feedback
- Negative feedback
- Lack of feedback

Positive feedback serves to congratulate and reinforce your direct report’s desired behavior. Properly done, positive feedback increases desired behavior – we will see guidelines for delivering feedback here below.

Constructive feedback teaches your direct report about the difference between undesired behavior and desired behavior – it explains and clarifies what is needed in order to attain desired behavior – constructive feedback is a teaching tool. Properly done, constructive feedback decreases unwanted behavior, and it increases desired behavior.

Negative feedback pinpoints undesired behavior only – it doesn’t teach anything – for the same reason, negative feedback comes across as a punishment. Negative feedback doesn’t help your direct report to grow. Hence, negative feedback is not only useless, but it is harmful as well.

Lack of feedback is not providing feedback at all. For the same reason, lack of feedback may result in an increase in undesired behavior, and/or in a decrease in desired behavior.

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Back to our how to give negative feedback question: As managers, we all want to increase desired behavior and decrease undesired behavior. Properly speaking, negative feedback doesn’t help us to do that.

Hence, given our above terminology clarification, let’s assume that we can leave the how to give negative feedback question behind, that that the proper formulation of this very same question is: How to give constructive feedback.

To get a clearer understanding about giving constructive feedback, first let’s take a look at the six giving positive feedback guidelines:

  • 1) FREQUENT: Give it in at least 4:1 ratio (where 4 represents the number of times you provide Positive Feedback, and 1 represents the number of times you provide Constructive Feedback), so your ratio may be 5:1, or 6:1, etc., but never less (i.e., 3:1)
  • 2) IMMEDIATE: Provide it within the first 24 hours
  • 3) SPECIFIC: Focus on the behavior – be facts based (erase the word “Attitude” from your vocabulary)
  • 4) SINCERE: Sincerity is related to what you say and how you say it
  • 5) PERSONAL: Express how you feel, be yourself
  • 6) UNIQUE: Don’t mix Positive Feedback with Constructive Feedback (and we repeat: Never ask yourself how to give negative feedback – rephrase the word negative for constructive.

    Notes: how to give negative feedback

  • If any of these six guidelines is missing in the Positive Feedback you provide to each one of your employees, motivation and increase in desired behavior is less likely to happen, you must follow all six guidelines if you want to truly motivate your people and increase desired behavior.
  • If you make the mistake of providing mechanical positive feedback, routine recognition (as in “I must give this positive feedback so I will just do it and get it over with”), and/or dishonest appreciation, your feedback will backfire, you will be perceived as dishonest, and you will de-motivate your employees instead.

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    With this background in mind, let’s talk about giving constructive feedback:

  • Never fail to provide Constructive Feedback – we all have areas of opportunity and we all need to grow.
  • However, when you provide constructive feedback, it means that you have already given positive feedback at least four separate times (remember the 4:1 ratio).
  • When giving Constructive Feedback, keep your emotions out of the way – never do it when you are angry.
  • Focus on behavior – not on the person – never blame your employee.
  • Strive for improvement – not for perfection.

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    A final word about giving constructive feedback:

    As the manager of your team – as the boss responsible for the results of your team, if you have created an open communication environment within your team, it will be much easier for you to give constructive feedback, your direct reports will be much more receptive to it, and as a consequence, your constructive feedback will be much more productive.

    And vice versa: how to give negative feedback

    If you have created a closed communication environment within your team, it will be much more difficult for you to give constructive feedback, your direct reports won’t be as receptive to it, and giving constructive feedback won’t be nearly as productive for your team.

    To create an open communication environment within your team, you might want to take a look at our section open versus closed environment inside our Techniques for Effective Communication page.

    Another very useful resource in this matter is our Small Group Communication page, where you will learn about the basic, fundamental building blocks in effective team communication.

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    Going back to our how to give negative feedback original question: Forget about it and rephrase it instead as: How to give constructive feedback.

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    To keep on learning about the skills you need to manage the performance of your direct reports, go back to the previous page, or click here, and continue reading in a sequential order.

    To learn more about the skills you need to lead the performance of your entire organization, go to our Leadership Skills page.

    If you would like your executives to learn about how to give negative feedback in the rephrased, constructive, and productive way through our speaking or consulting services, please, click on this link.

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