How to make giving negative feedback a positive experience!

An IT manager spoke with me recently about how he hates doing annual performance appraisals and providing performance feedback, especially when it is negative feedback. “So many employees are really not self-aware and open to the feedback,” he said.

No one especially relishes negative feedback, but there are ways to make the conversation go easier and to improve the chances of it having a positive outcome.

Giving feedback can significantly improve employee performance, but according to research, a third of the time when feedback is provided, it actually decreases performance.

The gold standard for providing feedback begins with setting expectations. It starts with setting specific goals (using the SMART goal or OKR goal approach), giving clear instruction, and then providing immediate praise, recognition, and feedback, both positive and constructive.

In the ideal environment, feedback is more positive and reinforcing than negative by a 3 to 1 or 5 to 1 ratio. However, not all situations are ideal, and some employees struggle with their roles, behaviors, and skill sets. Ignoring negativity or focusing only on strengths (unless you can change the job or job duties) doesn’t make the problems go away.

According to empirical evidence, feedback decreases performance when there is too much task complexity, and when the feedback moves from how to improve task performance to feedback on the individual as a person. If you are the one giving feedback, remember that providing coaching and setting goals for performance improvement can turn negative feedback into positive behavioral change.

I encourage managers to use the Bottom-of-the-Cup approach when giving feedback. The approach first asks the employee for his or her input on what has gone well, not so well, and then allows the manager to comment on the employee’s observations and statements. Then, the manager makes his or her own observations.

The beauty of this approach is that it lets the employee go first. In this way, the employee has a stake in his or her own feedback and performance. It allows the manager to agree with the employee which builds a sense of “we-ness,” or connectivity and mutual support and agreement.

Finally, it allows the manager to make comments on his or her own observation or feedback from others to add to what the employee has said. This approach can be used when an employee has finished a new task or assignment, during a weekly check-in meeting, or a performance appraisal meeting.

Here is how it works.

  1. How do you think your work/project is going?
  2. What do you think went well with (BE SPECIFIC)?
  3. What didn’t go so well?
  4. Yes, I agree with your comment (BE SPECIFIC). Now, let me make some observations.

Of course, you should not provide negative feedback for the first time during an annual performance appraisal. It only surprises employees and makes them feel defensive. Progress on goals and feedback should be given in real time during the year with open communications between the manager and employee and updated quarterly in performance management systems.

The Bottom-of-the-Cup approach helps the employee have a stake in his or her own development, build relationships and jointly set goals on how to improve.

Victor Assad is the CEO of Victor Assad Strategic Human Resources Consulting, managing partner of InnovationOne, and Sales Advisor to MeBeBot. He works with companies to transform HR, implement remote work, recruit executives, and develop extraordinary leaders, teams, and innovation cultures. He is the author of the highly acclaimed book, Hack Recruiting: the Best of Empirical Research, Method and Process, and Digitization. Subscribe to his weekly blogs at 

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