Have you been on the receiving end of a poorly constructed sh*t sandwich?
You’re great… there’s this one little thing… But you’re great!
When it comes of negative feedback, sloppy delivery can create a relationship mess and it deprives us and our team-members of valuable opportunities to grow.
Many entrepreneurs struggle to give feedback well. We dread it – it can be awkward and we worry about it.
Every leader will need to have a difficult conversation with an employee or colleague at some point. We can’t avoid it forever so we might as well figure out how to do it well.
Here are a few keys to delivering negative feedback effectively:
Being in the right headspace
Don’t deliver negative feedback if you’re angry or frustrated. Even in the midst of some kind of business emergency… deal with the problem and provide the feedback in a later debrief session.
The problem with negative feedback delivered in haste is that you might trigger unintended consequences. If a team member screws something up with a client and you come out with some equivalent of “WTF are you doing?!” the immediate response is defensive walls. Your emotional state will largely determine how safe the other person feels, which determines how much they will let your words permeate them.
Anger triggers threat which triggers defenses and that is unproductive for everyone.
It’s never easy, but taking a break to calm yourself may save important relationships and help you to deliver feedback in a more constructive way. For example, one strategy is to save emails to draft first. Perhaps your first inclination was to pound away at the keyboard, but don’t send the result immediately! Sometimes you may need to walk away for a few minutes (or 24 hours) to get into a calm headspace. It can also be helpful to have a trusted friend read over your email response. I’ve helped Rob remove a lot of profanity from emails over the years.
As Tony Schwartz, Catherine McCarthy, and Jean Gomes put it in their book The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working:
“The key is to move from automatic to intentional mode, so you’re capable of making a conscious decision about how to respond.”
Motives for giving feedback
Part of getting into the right headspace involves first questioning your motives for giving feedback before you dive right in. When we talk about giving feedback constructively, there are “right” and “wrong” reasons behind giving feedback. These are illustrated in the table below:
What is your motive for giving feedback? If it’s for any reason listed on the left-hand side, you’re better off pausing before going ahead (especially if you don’t want to come across as a total jerk).
On the other hand, the reasons on the right-hand side come from more positive motivations. These are what can move your business forward and the development of the team member.
Your brain on criticism
Did you know that our brains work to protect us from criticism? It is viewed as a threat to our survival which triggers that defensive mechanism you will so often see in the recipients of negative feedback.
It helps to understand this, so that you’re better able to deliver this sort of feedback effectively. We are wired biologically to sense danger, and repeatedly, psychological studies show that we react to negative things more strongly, quickly, and persistently than any other sort of stimulus. In one study, Roy Baumeister and Ellen Bratslavsky summed it up this way:
“Bad emotions, bad parents and bad feedback have more impact than good ones, and bad information is processed more thoroughly than good. The self is more motivated to avoid bad self-definitions than to pursue good ones. Bad impressions and bad stereotypes are quicker to form and more resistant to disconfirmation than good ones.”
Our brains sense criticism as a primal threat, possibly impacting our place in the social order of things. The bigger the perceived threat (for example, the boss is yelling at me), the stronger the defensive reaction is likely to be.
We tend to have a bias toward any sort of negativity for this reason. For example, if you think back to a time when you were given a performance review or some other feedback, what sticks out? Usually it is any sort of criticism, well above the positive things that were said.Our brains are wired to protect us from criticism, a threat to our belonging Click To Tweet
Feedback and motivation
Sometimes you have to give negative feedback. So for the most part, those articles suggesting not to criticize team members, colleagues, or your kids are unhelpful.
Studies have shown that people at different levels of expertise show different preferences toward positive or negative feedback, particularly in terms of what they find motivating. For example, experts tend to prefer more critical feedback that helps them to develop anything they are weaker in, while novices prefer to be given feedback that focuses on their strengths.
This is another thing to consider when you prepare to give feedback. What is the level of expertise of the recipient? Someone who is new to their role may be demotivated if most of their feedback is critical, so consider how you can build them up at the same time (depending on the context of the feedback, of course).
Delivering feedback effectively
Besides pausing to consider your motivation, being in the right headspace, and considering your audience, what else can you do to deliver feedback effectively? Here are a few key tips:
Don’t make negative feedback the norm
Work environments become particularly toxic when they’re filled with complaints and negativity. The danger of negative feedback being the norm is that people stop caring. They’re going to get into trouble over something anyway, so it seems hopeless no matter what they do.
On the other hand, if your usual practice is to be very free with positive feedback but only bring in the negative when really necessary, people tend to take notice and care more.
Be timely with critical feedback
Once you’re in the right headspace to deliver it, critical feedback should be delivered as soon as possible after the event that triggered it. When managers stockpile negative feedback to deliver it all at once, it can be overwhelming and demoralizing for the recipient.
Remember that primal, defensive reaction? You’re going to get some major pushback if the employee feels bombarded by everything at once.
Frame to emphasize inclusion
An important psychological principle related to the defensive mechanism we put up against negative feedback is the fear of a loss of connection. Negative feedback hurts because there is a perceived threat of being ostracized or excluded.
With this in mind, framing feedback to emphasize inclusion and part-ownership can help. For example, a suggestion from Professor Neal Ashkanasy is that you begin by asking questions. He might ask “how do you think you are doing?” in order to give the recipient joint ownership of the conversation. This also prompts some self-evaluation from the person.
Deliver feedback in-person, if possible
Many entrepreneurs work with remote-based teams, so delivering in-person feedback can be tricky. However, look at tools such as video chat. Why? Feedback delivered by email is often misconstrued.
It’s easy for people to take their own “meaning” from written feedback and the situation can escalate further if they forward the message onto other people. Without important contextual cues, such as tone and body language, people can infer something negative even from relatively neutral words. If someone says to you “we need to talk,” the language is neutral, but you’re probably now wondering what you did wrong, right?
Make your feedback clear
The “sandwich method” is a popular way of delivering negative feedback – by sandwiching it between positive comments. This can help the person be more receptive to the critical feedback. However, make sure you’re not rendering it ineffective by removing concrete assertions.
For example, saying something like “I’m wondering about your customer service decisions” is vague and unhelpful. On the other hand, “you didn’t get back to Jane with regard to her account” is very specific and addresses the behavior leading to the feedback. It is the specific behavior that you want changed anyway, so addressing it makes your feedback actionable.
“Objective,” “fair” and “straightforward” are important keywords when it comes to delivering clear feedback. Sticking to the facts and not running off on tangents is important to leave the person feeling that feedback was fairly delivered.
Listen and allow the person to respond
If people don’t feel that they’re given the opportunity to speak up for themselves and be heard, they often become resentful and put up walls to learning. A “listen first” policy helps you to understand where they were coming from. It still may have resulted in something that you don’t want happening, but at least you can give better feedback if you understand their way of thinking.
No one really looks forward to it, but every entrepreneur will find themselves having to deliver critical feedback at some point. Preferably, you want to deliver that feedback effectively, without coming across as a jerk or leading to unintended consequences, such as people quitting.
Effective feedback begins by pausing to ensure you’re in the best headspace to deliver it. Consider how feedback can be perceived as a threat, and look for ways to deliver it that keep the person feeling included.
Being willing to accept feedback yourself can be another great way to make people more receptive. If you’re serious about improving performance, then honest feedback should be treasured.