Get Comfortable Communicating Negative Feedback: Normalise, Empathise and Recognise

I read an article by Lou Solomon on HBR today that argued that two-thirds of managers are uncomfortable communicating with their employees. Two-thirds? That is an incredible amount – on the face of it. Look below this headline number and this number is even more scary, as it refers not only to the communication of negative feedback – which I am sure you’ll agree is an area of disquiet for most of us – but in general, and inclusive of positive feedback too.

Considering the fact, that as reasonable people, we can all attest to a point in our lives where we were given feedback (perhaps perceived negative at the time) that has since shaped who we are now in an undeniably good way, there does seem to be a massive irony in these numbers. Most of us would quite happily put our hands up for more feedback, so why on earth are we so bad at giving it, knowing that the outcome will likely be positive, if just a bit awkward?

Practically, let’s look at how you can make providing ‘honest’ feedback easier:

#1 Normalise feedback: create a regular structure that provides for good and bad

One of the best ways to make the process of giving feedback more comfortable is to work it into part of every employee’s performance management process. By setting an expectation that every employee, regardless of performance, ranking, or level of authority will have regular check in sessions, in which good, and bad, feedback will be provided makes it a “normal” part of every weekly, or monthly check in sessions. What will be critical to making this work is consistency – don’t drop it, as the act of picking it up because you have to could very well re-instate an unwanted tension in the process.

#2 Be empathetic, be direct and listen

Although you might provide good and bad feedback in the same session, never try to soften negative feedback by framing it in the guise of praise. Management techniques such as starting with the good, and leading on to the bad, rarely have the desired effect, and also feel forced. People are smart; they’ll see this approach a mile off, and it won’t sit well. Be honest, don’t jump to conclusions by ensuring you listen, always, and don’t sugar coat what needs be said. Likewise, if you’re bringing an agenda in to this meeting that is deliberately out to reprimand no-one with no idea of what they can do to improve, quit right there. You must frame the example as an opportunity for growth, and be clear on the desired behaviours you want to see.

#3 Pull up: set clear goals that allow for positive recognition

Everyone needs to achieve, to grow and stay engaged, so allow them to regain their standing through positive reinforcement. Once you have discussed the feedback, mutually agree a set of time specific and measurable goals. It may be as simple as resetting a number of timelines and performance targets for BAU tasks such as month-end, or more complex and involve liaison with L&D or HR for skills development. Don’t ever leave a meeting without an agreed plan and check-in point, and make sure you stick to it!

Above all, don’t feel the need to ‘fill’ awkward silences. The strongest of impressions can be undone in seconds by a perceived retreat from what was agreed or a sense you, as a manager, are brushing it off. Take your instinct to be ‘liked’ out of the room, and understand that will gain you more credibility and respect is authenticity and clarity in communication. Confusing the message through a nervous utterance, or mismanaged ice breaker, will undermine all of your work. Show integrity, kindness and transparency – and the rest will follow.

Read more: Solomon, L., “Two-Thirds of Managers Are Uncomfortable Communicating with Employees”, HBR

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