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Tips to Staying Positive While Giving Employees Negative Feedback

By Kimberly Bustamante

In a classic 1963 psychology experiment, grade-school teachers were told that their students had taken an aptitude test from Harvard that would predict which students would be high achievers in coming years. The researchers did not put into place any special treatment or academic program for these students, they just told the teachers these children had been tested and found “gifted.”

Unbeknownst to the teachers, the tests were bogus. The “gifted” students were chosen at random from the classroom listings. The researchers then monitored all the children at the school for a year, and something interesting happened.

The children researchers identified as gifted were held to higher expectations. Their teachers treated them with greater care and attentiveness, gave them better feedback and more challenging assignments than the other students. They were given more opportunities to lead and were pushed to try more difficult work. And testing at the end of the year clearly indicated those students showed greater intellectual gains than their peers.

Supervisors can take away two important lessons from this experiment. 1) Your expectations of others can become self-fulfilling. Each of us has subconscious biases towards people (both positive and negative) that we can work to mitigate by being conscious of them. 2) The way you communicate with and treat your employees makes a huge difference in their success. It can bolster or hinder behaviors and performance.

As a supervisor, one place these lessons can be easily unveiled is during critical conversations focused on corrective measures and negative feedback. The results of those discussions and the effects on employee performance are often a product of the approach you use.

Here are eight tips for sharing negative feedback on employee performance that will lead to a successful outcome and build success for the employee.

  1. Be mindful of your viewpoint. First and foremost, you must approach negative feedback discussions with a focus on helping the employee succeed. If you are focused on punishment, the discussion will not be effective. As a leader, your role is to realign in a way that helps the employee find success. Second, admit that you are biased. We all are. We all project how we would have behaved differently or handled situations differently onto our evaluations of employee performance. In some cases, the performance or activity of the employee has made your job a little harder or added drama to your team. Sometimes we project our gut feelings regarding the employee’s success onto his or her performance. Acknowledge your feelings to yourself and get them out of the way so that negativity does not take over the meeting. Take a deep breath and keep an open mind. Evaluate your message to ensure it is delivered in a way that is helpful rather than hurtful. Finally, remember to stay humble. Never forget you have made many mistakes, and you are going to make more.
  2. Don’t wait. If you detect a small problem now but the employee’s performance review isn’t for six months, you could simply wait and let the problem grow and fester, impacting productivity and morale. Or you could address it immediately, while there’s still relatively little negative energy surrounding the issue
  3. Focus on behaviors, not personality. Perhaps this employee will never be invited to your dinner party, but don’t let your personal feelings boil over into your work relationship. Focus on the behaviors that get in the way of performance, not personality traits. For example, banish the word “attitude” from the discussion. Instead of bringing up a “bad attitude,” give specific examples of the behaviors that led you to believe the person has a bad attitude. You can’t change your employee’s personality, but you can focus on the behaviors that get in the way of performance.
  4. Be specific. Pare down your list. If you bring up every criticism you’ve had for the last year, the conversation will quickly turn bitter and exhausting. Most of the faults you’ve seen in this employee can probably be condensed into one or two general complaints. For instance, if the person missed multiple deadlines and turned in shoddy work on three other occasions, perhaps it boils down to procrastination. Focus on that single behavior rather than every example as a unique failing.
  5. Don’t instill fear. The object isn’t to scare the devil out of your employee. Fear is a huge demotivator and leads to shutdown. As a leader, it’s your responsibility to create a safe environment where employees trust that you are there to help them succeed. Focus on providing constructive criticism and useful advice for getting over the hump. Give the employee specific alternate behaviors and set clear expectations or goals so he or she can focus on reaching them. If you can convince your employee that sensible changes in work habits will yield results in his or her favor, you’re ahead of the game.
  6. Avoid sandwiching the negative. Face it, this is going to be an uncomfortable conversation. No one likes giving people negative feedback that risks hurting their feelings. It’s typical for supervisors to wedge negative comments into an otherwise positive communication and hurry through it. When you sandwich negative feedback between two positive reinforcement statements, employees will focus on the positive and ignore the critical part. That employee may like you better, but by hiding or downplaying the bad news, you risk that person leaving your meeting oblivious to performance issues.
  7. Confirm your understanding. When it comes to working toward behavioral and performance changes, it is critical to ensure there are no misunderstandings in the message. Ask your employee to repeat what he thinks he heard you say. At the end of any critical discussion, I typically say something like, “I want to be sure I’ve been clear in our discussion and that we are on the same page. Why don’t you review with me what you’re taking away from our meeting.” Then I let the employee explain back to me the key points. This not only lets me know the employee picked up on the right message, it also reconfirms the action steps (which the employee typically assists in determining) and ensures we’re both clear on the goal. Make sure that errors in communication are corrected at this point so you both leave knowing what the problem is — and exactly how to resolve it.
  8. Clean the slate and follow up with positive reinforcement. The behavior under review may have left you resentful toward or distrustful of the employee, but that’s not fair. Erase any bad memories and start over with a clean slate. Assume the issue is resolved — unless later proven otherwise. It is critical to follow up with positive reinforcement when you see the desired changes. Giving negative feedback and not monitoring and following up with either additional realignment or positive feedback will demotivate the employee and his or her behaviors will not change.

Negative feedback doesn’t have to be a thoroughly negative experience for either of you. Approach it as a crucial conversation that will help the employee succeed. It can clear the air and create a blueprint toward future success.

As Director of Operations for Wiss & Company LLP, Kim is responsible for resource management, technology and culture keeping at the firm.

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