Giving negative feedback? First things first!

I have lost count of the amount of times people have asked me for a technique for giving negative feedback. The world is awash with them and if you have ever attended management or leadership programmes you will have learned one or more of them. We can all have our opinions on which ones are best however they are all much of a muchness. The issue is not the technique it is the foundations on which the technique is laid that is the issue. Lay any technique on poor foundations and the technique will fail.  

In our opinion therefore, there are three foundations that are essential to have in place for anyone wanting to successfully land negative feedback.

  1. Trust – The primary fear people have in giving difficult feedback is that the relationship and/or future interactions with that person will be negatively impacted in some way. Too often, the receiver of the feedback pushes back or is defensive or worse case, questions the intentions behind the feedback. It may be that you have best intentions at heart however they may suspect ulterior motives, they may worry you are trying to push them out or they may think you have it in for them. Trust is therefore critical. Do they genuinely trust your intentions? Is there enough trust in the ‘bank’ to offset the potential ‘withdrawal’ that might be associated with what you are about to say? Past ‘form’ is the key. Do you have a reputation for acting in a way that builds trust or not? If not, you can pretty much forget your difficult message landing in the way you would like.  
  2. Positive intention – As Karl Popper said: “The aim of any discussion should not be victory but progress”. If you are giving feedback for any other reason than seeing that person improve or do better, then you should question your motive. Sometimes there is a little bit of: “they won’t get one over on me” or “I’ll show them who is boss” or “they won’t get away with that”. If there is even a fraction of this in your mind - even unconsciously - you are in trouble! A good distinction to make is between the ‘critic’ and the ‘coach’. A critic usually looks to find fault or point out poor performance in some way whereas the coach may refer to past poor performance however with the intention of improving it next time the person needs to perform. So make sure you act like the ‘coach’. Have positive intention. Have suggestions up your sleeve for how that person could improve. It might even be appropriate to openly tell them your intention as part of your message so that they hear it in that context.    
  3. Evidence – Sometimes this is easy if a project is late or a piece of work has not been  completed to a clearly visible standard. However it is surprising how often people offer opinions as feedback rather than evidence. This is dangerous for obvious reasons – if someone has a different opinion to you, it then becomes a question of whose opinion is most valid - a sure fire way to start an argument! The key is to have evidence of the under performance – objective, clear evidence. A good start is to make sure the expected performance level is crystal clear in the original objective you set ("please, please don't mention SMART objectives" I hear you say!). Secondly, whenever possible, make sure that the evidence you have is your evidence – not someone else’s. 2nd hand feedback is fraught with difficulties – does that person have an agenda? Are they using the same criteria as you? Are they being impartial? Sometimes it’s applicable however in all cases, make sure there is objective, clear evidence to support their case.