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How to give negative feedback

Negative feedback is an unavoidable part of work life, make it a positive experience.   2012-10-17

The topic of stress in the workplace from the point of view of the employee and its effects on productivity and health has received much attention but it seems that the point of view of the employer or manager is often overlooked. This article looks at one particular aspect of employer/manager and employee relations that might be a cause of stress to the employer. Negative feedback is often an indispensable part of employer/employee relations and needless to say it can be an unpleasant experience for both sides. What can the employer do to make the experience less stressful for him/her and more productive for the business and the employee?

Negative v positive feedback

Experts in the field of employer/employee relations are of the view that if a manager only gives praise, productivity slumps, but also, if the worker/employee only receives negative criticism, productivity also slumps. In a working situation where every action results in praise then there is no motivation to improve and apathy might ensue but where there only is criticism and no praise, the result is the same and employees in both situations are likely to be unhappy and look for greener pastures. One of the most important tasks of a manager is to give constructive criticism which includes feedback on the things an employee has done well, but also feedback on those areas where improvement is necessary. If handled correctly the person will leave a review meeting feeling good but also inspired to improve and progress.

When negative feedback needs to be given, it is worth planning how to put it across to the employee. Most experts agree that wherever possible, it should be done face to face rather than by e-mail or texting since our body language speaks volumes. The feedback should be given as soon as possible after the event in question and the manager should not wait for the annual review to do so since the employee may well have forgotten all about the event in question. Finally, the venue needs to be considered. Privacy is essential as nobody likes to be given negative feedback in front of others. It would also be good if there are few distractions such as phone calls.

Hear the employee out

Having sorted out the time and the venue it is time to meet the employee. Some experts suggest that you should start by giving positive feedback about something they have done well, while others feel you should get straight to the point and start with the difficult area. Either way all feedback should be about specific events or behaviour, e.g. ‘I noticed that the other day when you were serving the woman who wanted a red skirt, you spoke to her in an abrupt way’ is better than ‘You’re very bad tempered’. You should speak in a calm manner because if you show anger you are likely to get an angry, defensive response. Having imparted your criticism, it is important that you listen to what the employee has to say. Experts emphasise the fact that most people are unable to learn and move on until they feel they have been heard. In the case of a sales assistant who was abrupt or unhelpful to a customer for example, it may be that the sales assistant had a reason why she seemed abrupt e.g. maybe the buyer had insulted her just before you got there. The reason may or may not be valid but understanding the employee’s point of view will help you help them. Together you can work out a plan to deal better with a similar situation in the future. Before you finish your interview with the employee, it is good to give some positive feedback and show appreciation for an event they handled well e.g. ‘I thought you were really patient with the woman who couldn’t make up her mind which shirt to buy’.

Positive & negative

If you handle the meeting well, the employee should leave feeling that they have a boss who values them enough to want them to improve and be the best. They should be clear both about what they have done well, what they have not done so well and what they can do to improve.

Take action before your manager intervenes

And a final word to employees, if unsure about how you handled a particular situation, seek feedback from fellow employees, their input can be extremely valuable and it may avoid you a stressful interview with your manager. This may involve being open to some negative feedback which may be unpleasant to hear but it will give you a chance to improve your performance before your managers intervene.