Tough Talk: 5 Top Tips for Giving Negative Feedback to High Performers

Tough Talk 5 Top Tips for Giving Negative Feedback to High Performers (1)

Giving negative feedback is one of the most uncomfortable aspects of leadership, especially when it’s to high performers. Yet one of the most critical. Get this right – and the rest will be easy. But, why is it so hard, and what can you do about it?

Identify and address issues quickly

Reprimanding regular under-performers is somehow easier – whereas tackling difficult issues with your ‘protégée’, or next-in-line, can be uncomfortable, awkward, and sometimes feel like it’s unnecessary. They’ll get back to form, soon, won’t they?

The answer, unfortunately, is often no, and being lenient can cause more harm than good. Not only might a degree of favouritism be picked up by other team members, it sets an expectation that under par performance is acceptable. Likewise, the employee in question might not even realise there is an issue, which left unaddressed, will result in a growing resentment on your part that the individual is not “bucking” up, not to mention a deteriorating spiral of underperformance and eventual manager-employee relationship breakdown.

Make ‘feedback’ (good and bad) a normal part of how you engage with your staff

Calling someone in for a meeting when you’ve never done it before will create tension – both on your side, and theirs. Likewise, if you leave them alone most of the time but then pick up on a number of items, it may be taken that you’re only interested in picking on bad things and never compliment them for the good work they do. By setting an expectation that every employee, regardless of performance 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.

Be honest, show compassion, 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. Your top performers are smart; they’ll see this approach a mile off, and it won’t sit well. Employing an open, but empathetic approach, and keeping to the facts of what you know, works best. Allow the employee to give their side of the story – you may come to a critical piece of information that you weren’t aware of before.

Defuse emotions: prepare to deal with defensive reactions

Although most people say they want to receive negative feedback, in reality people react in different ways to hearing it. Even if the employee doesn’t react verbally, or immediately, to hearing bad feedback, you may notice after giving feedback a cooling off period, which may demonstrate itself through stiffening posture, reduced participation in office pleasantries or a subdued persona. Remember, top performers are not used to being viewed negatively, and generally value recognition as a high performance, so most likely they are feeling uncomfortable, and a deep unhappiness with their new status, rather than wrongly accused. Providing comfort to them by not changing in your general behaviours or interactions with them outside of the feedback session will help compartmentalise if for them as an actionable item, not as a shift in how you view them.

Pull up: set clear goals that allow for positive recognition

Top performers like to achieve, 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 training.

Whatever the goal, it is essential you follow through and acknowledge completion, or success. Ensure that positive reinforcement becomes an agenda in your next feedback session, while monitoring future performance closely to avoid relapse.

Building Your Team?

Jonathan Olden is Managing Partner of Barden Cork. He leads an expert team of recruitment consultants covering accounting & tax, financial services, IT and legal careers.

He is the go to person when it comes to recruitment and building teams in Cork and the wider Munster region. Reach out to Jonathan to see how he, and his team, can help you build and retain truly world class teams.

Contact Jonathan at or via LinkedIn.

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