Negative Feedback: What is it exactly?

I am trying so hard not to roll my eyes right now.

I re-read the sentence. “Cherish criticism instead of getting offended by it!” says the feedback in bright, breezy tones with a liberal dollop of self-righteousness. Try as I might, I cannot keep the patronising tone out of my head. I give up, and roll my eyes.

As part of a recent exercise in building my Birkman profile, I have been asked to gather feedback from colleagues about various aspects of teamwork. Only, one particular person seems to have decided that my personality is in need of an overhaul. Every little “issue” – from leaving a group discussion early, to being a perfectionist, to not avoiding conflict – has been listed diligently. I don’t know whether to grin or groan.

When it comes to feedback, you can find yourself at both, the giving as well as receiving end. This article does not concern itself with the latter. It is the former that I often struggle with.

It can be difficult to give positive feedback. Too enthusiastic, and it can appear effusive and insincere. Too restrained, and it can appear reluctant and deflating.

It can be even more challenging to give negative feedback. How to avoid being overly critical? How to avoid hurting the receiver’s feelings? How to convince them the feedback can be useful for their performance improvement? How to make sure the feedback is perceived as constructive? And above all, how to ensure what you are saying really is a problem, not simply a different way of being/working?

Over time and painful experience, I have determined two conditions, both of which need to be met in order for me to consider the issue as worthy of negative feedback:

1. Is the issue happening regularly and consistently?
2. Is the issue becoming an obstacle in achieving the goals?

If a thing (e.g. someone laughing loudly while talking on the phone) happens regularly — either intentionally or accidentally — but it does not obstruct anyone in the team from achieving their goals and doing their job well, it is not worth mentioning. Similarly, if a thing (e.g. someone taking unexpected sick leave in the middle of a crucial product release) creates an obstacle in achieving a goal but only happens occasionally, then again, it is not worth mentioning. In both cases, it only highlights differences in people and there is no right or wrong way.

However, if a thing (e.g. someone talking too much and unnecessarily doubling the time spent in meetings) happens regularly and stops the job from being done well or on budget, then it becomes a problem that needs to be addressed. In this situation, I consider it to be negative feedback that must be raised and rectified for the greater good.

The next question then is how to communicate negative feedback in a way that it is received appropriately. I have found the best way to do this is to:

1. Assess whether now may be a good time to bring it up. During organisation-wide feedback cycles, employee awareness is high, and people are in the right frame of mind to accept and offer feedback, but you do not have to wait quarter of a year. It may be better to mention it immediately when the issue is fresh in everyone’s mind.
However, equally, pointing out someone’s drawbacks just after they have finished a stressful project will not be taken well. Judgement is key.

2. Prepare the person by letting them know you have feedback to share. This gives them a heads-up that bad news may be coming. Springing surprises can backfire.

3. Talk to the person face to face if possible. Email and text are best avoided. It is difficult to read nuance or easy to misread intentions in the written word.

4. Be gentle but direct. Beating around the bush will only serve to confuse matters and the person can come away from the conversation without even realising the point. Remain calm and professional and keep feelings out of it, unless emotion is relevant to the issue.

5. Provide specific examples of when the issue occurred, how frequently it occurred, and the impact on each occasion. Explain why it is a problem. Make sure your recounting of the issue is as unbiased and fair as possible. This will concretise the feedback from vague opinions subject to interpretation into actionables to be viewed objectively. Without evidence, there is not much difference between criticism and slander!

6. Context is everything. Every quality can be perceived as good or bad depending on the circumstances. For example, my daughter can be stubborn. This is “bad” for me when I am trying to persuade her to do unload the dishwasher when she would rather play. However, this same stubbornness can stand her in “good” stead when she is trying out a difficult piece of music on her guitar, because it helps her persevere until she masters it. So, what could be negative in one context could be advantageous in another.

The above can help identify what constitutes genuine negative feedback and deliver it in a way that can truly build up team relationships instead of breaking them down.

As for me, I shall sincerely thank my colleague for taking the time and trouble to provide me with his feedback and wait for the day when it is my turn to return the favour!

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