The Risks of Providing Negative Feedback

by Krishna on March 30, 2009


An important part of management and mentoring is the need to provide accurate feedback to employees about their work. The motivation is to reinforce positive actions and behaviors and reduce or end mistakes. It is easy to give praise to employees when they are doing something good, but the flip side has many risks.

The main problem with giving negative feedback is that it can easily come across as personal criticism. The employee thinks that you have found something wrong with them. This can bruise their feelings and make them antagonistic towards you. This is not true of everyone. Some people are more receptive of negative feedback, others are more sensitive. You cannot be too careful with how you communicate.

One strategy used by many managers is the “sandwich” technique. Here the manager first praises the individual, then slips in an item of criticism and then ends the conversation on a good note by praising the individual again. In practice, mastering this technique can be tricky. If the criticism is too strong, the praise portions of the speech can ring hollow. Plus, employees quickly master the peculiarities of managers and, if this technique is used too often, they will ignore the praise placeholders.

A different technique would be to avoid framing the mistake as a problem, but instead suggest a change as a different/better way of doing things. This is an internal acceptance that the employee did what he did because of ignorance or inexperience, and the mistake was, in fact, an honest effort that failed. So instead of berating the individual, acknowledge their efforts and explain what must be done in future. Look forward.

Another issue with negative feedback is that instead of trying to rectify the problem you identified, the employee tries to avoid the situation that caused the problem. For example, if a code review discovers problems in a programmer’s code, he may try to reduce the frequency of code reviews to buy more time to fix the code instead of writing good code in the first place.

One could solve this issue by describing the solution in addition to explaining the problem. But there is a danger that the employee may be too overwhelmed with negative feedback and be under pressure. In such a situation, it is better to slow down, and give the employee time and resources to get back on track. Different employees are different and you have to make the right judgment whether a particular employee will improve if they are given more rope.

In many cases, if the employee is capable, it is better to avoid full-length discussions and let them handle the situation themselves. This is an important aspect of delegation too because if you run around trying to solve people’s problems for them, they will never improve. Treat employees like adults and they will respond accordingly.

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