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Turning Negative Feedback Into A Positive Experience

Wednesday 8 July, 2009
Almost all managers find it hard to give negative feedback. When asked which skill area they would most like to improve, they almost always nominate this as a primary need. The key is to give feedback in a way that allows staff to interpret suggestions made by the manager in a positive light.

The problem

The problem is familiar. We know people make judgments about each other, so staff know their manager has opinions about them. People want feedback from their boss but mostly don't get it. And when they do get it, it generally makes them defensive or upset!

This means that:

  1. Staff often miss out on feedback that would help them learn and grow, and
  2. The manager might harbour an unexpressed frustration which can spiral out of proportion

The cause

If we can understand the cause of the issue, then we can help managers find a way to overcome their inherent reluctance.


Giving "negative" feedback is more emotional than rational. At a rational level, making a suggestion or sharing an observation should not be a problem for a manager. Yet it often is. The problem is that it's emotional. Expressing a negative opinion can be enough to make a manager's heart race and at the extreme, keep the manager awake at night, dreading a meeting with a staff member the next day.

Humans much prefer to keep out of harm's way. The thought of going into a meeting room where conflict possibly awaits can trigger the "flight or fight" syndrome. For the manager, "flight" means either not going into the room (avoid / delay) or when in the discussion, being too weak or evasive (which can be confusing to staff because of the mixed message). "Fight" can mean being too blunt.

  • Empathy

    Humans are hardwired for empathy which plays a role in giving feedback. Managers can empathise that a corrected staff member might feel blame, perhaps reminding the person of being scolded as a child. We can put ourselves in the other's position.
  • Loss aversion

    Managers are attuned to loss aversion, meaning that they know that staff members will avoid loss (such as loss of social standing through criticism) and hence are not surprised that the staff member is defensive or argumentative about any suggested improvement.
  • Social implications and gossip

    Managers also sense the social implications of giving negative feedback. Often unconsciously, managers know that if they upset one person, then that might affect the dynamics in their team and could alienate other team members closest to the person, if the person receiving the feedback is offended.

Meaning of "feedback"

Hesitancy in giving and receiving feedback also relates to the emotional meaning of the word, "feedback". In many cultures, the word has a negative classification, meaning that it triggers negative emotions. Generally, if your manager says to you, "I want to give you some feedback" the brain and body instantly responds negatively and it's hard from that point for the feedback to be shared and received constructively.

The family paradox

The building block of human communities, including organisations, is the family-sized group of around 7 people. At work, this is the team to which we belong and is led by the manager. We want this group to be like family. Yet the paradox is that it is not our family. Hence while the manager is the head of the work team, they can't talk to us like our direct family can. Like most of us, my spouse, parents and siblings can talk to me with a candour that no boss ever could! Managers need to tread this line carefully - providing feedback in a way that is framed sensitively so as not to damage the relationship.

The solution

All this means we need to find a way for managers to give feedback through the positive use of natural human instincts.

First and foremost the solution must involve a way that reduces or removes the negative emotional weight on managers. If managers feel a burden in giving feedback, then there is little chance of either doing it or doing it well. This is why teaching "tough conversations" is not the answer, as such an approach does not overcome, and in fact can make worse, the emotional barrier causing most of the problem.

Here are some elements of an alternative approach:

  • A new hire

    In the first week, the manager should have a discussion with the person that "I want to be the sort of boss who helps you learn and grow and succeed in the role. To do that, I will need to point out anything along the way that I observe, good or bad that will help you. Is that okay?".

    The new staff member will not only answer an enthusiastic "yes", but also think to themselves, "I have never worked for a boss who has been prepared to take the time and interest in helping me with comments".

    What the manager has done at this point is:

    • Gained a licence to give feedback
    • Classified future comments as "helpful"
    • Diminished the emotion (for themselves as much as for the staff member) attached to giving feedback
    So, if in a few weeks the manager observes something that they want to share with the new staff member, they have laid the foundation for comfortably saying, "Kim, have you got a moment? I've just observed something that might help you". Kim appreciatively listens as she knows it is coming from a constructive motivation. Fundamentally, it's made it easier on the manager to pass comments.
  • A current staff member

    A similar approach can be used with current staff. At the beginning of the annual review cycle when job goals are being set, the manager should ask the staff member, "So, what are the one or two things you want to accomplish or achieve this year so that the year is a highly successful one for you?". When the staff member nominates their key objective, the manager then says, "That's great. What I'll do, is if I spot anything along the way, good or bad that will help you, I'll let you know. Is that okay?".

    The licence has been granted and the positive classification has been achieved. Negative emotion attached in giving future comments is significantly diminished - if not removed.

Regular reviews

In my years observing bosses, there's one thing that the best bosses do. They have scheduled (weekly or fortnightly) individual reviews with their people. Apart from the constructive relationship building and project support this provides, it is the single best platform for giving and receiving feedback. It becomes easy for a discussion about "one thing I observed last week that I'd like to talk about...".

Without a regular meeting where things can be easily raised, the alternative is the more stressful scheduling of a meeting. If a manager has to resort to "I'd like to see you in my office", or "I'd like to have a meeting with you at 10am tomorrow" then this just adds to the negative emotion associated with feedback and causes the manager to avoid or delay (as well as increasing the emotional stakes for the staff member).

Avoid the feedback sandwich

Finally, avoid the common approach of what's often referred to as the "feedback sandwich". This approach involves starting with a positive, covering the negative and then finishing with a positive. Well, for humans that doesn't work.

From the manager's perspective, it adds emotional baggage as the manager knows the first part is a device and not congruent with their purpose. It both adds to their stress as well as derails them when they find the approach triggers an instant resistance from the staff member!

From the staff member's perspective they are either anticipating a big "but" or if they receive the initial positive as genuine then they feel misled when the real reason for the discussion is revealed. Resistance is triggered and trust of the manager is diminished. It also means that any positives are wasted as they are no longer received as positive.

Fundamentally, the feedback sandwich is erroneous as it does not attend to the underlying sensitivities of emotion and how humans process information.


When instincts are positively applied to the giving of feedback:

  1. The negative emotion attached to feedback is diminished or removed, and
  2. Feedback has been classified as helpful

When you give feedback in this fashion, your staff will say about you, "I'm fortunate to work for a manager who helps me learn in a really constructive way - I've never before worked for a manager who coaches me so well!".

Author Credits

Andrew O'Keeffe, Hardwired Humans. Hardwired Humans assists business leaders design and implement people strategies based on human instincts. Through understanding human instincts leaders can predict what will work and can avoid the predictable mistakes if instincts are ignored. For further information visit the web site: www.hardwiredhumans.com
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