7 Ways to Deliver Constructive Feedback and Be Thanked for It

Here’s something no one wants to see or experience at work:

An employee leaving their manager’s office, red-faced, furious, trying to hold it together.

This is what can happen when a manager delivers negative employee feedback in an ineffective way. And the damage doesn’t stop there. Depending on the person, any and all of the following things could happen next. The employee may:

  • feedbackPrivately (or publicly) badmouth the manager
  • Turn the workplace into a pool of toxicity
  • Stew about it, crater their job performance, and look for another job
  • Cry, feel helpless and worthless, and consider quitting
  • Stop caring (lose motivation)
  • Try to work harder to get a better review next time
  • Bring a dart board with the manager’s face in the middle

Here’s the amazing thing though: Most employees actually prefer negative feedback to positive feedback. They want to know how they can improve. This was borne out in a Gallup study.

So how do you deliver negative employee feedback so the employee feels supported and empowered to improve?

Here are 7 keys to giving an employee negative feedback that produces positive outcomes.


1. Do It Soon

Waiting months creates the perfect conditions for grudges to develop – in the manager especially, depending on the nature of the mistake. If you call the employee into a meeting after five months of ranting about their mistake to everyone who will listen, so that even your mailman knows about it, you’ll have a harder time being professional and helpful to your employee.

Don’t wait. Quarterly meetings are good. But if you know there’s a problem address it now. For your own sake, as well as theirs.

2. It’s Not You, It’s Your Behavior

It’s vital to keep the focus on the person’s actions, not on them. Here’s a fun article with a bunch of examples of good and bad ways to give negative employee feedback.

Focusing on the person feels like judgment. Focusing on the behavior feels like problem-solving. Your job is to solve the problem.

3. Get Specific (and Two Words to Never Use In Your Feedback)

Using the words ‘always’ and ‘never’ when giving negative employee feedback doesn’t usually go well. The reason is because they are rarely accurate. (Yes, we used ‘never’ in the heading. Couldn’t resist).

When you say, “You’re always late,” this simply can’t be true. No one is always late. Always means every single time, forever, since the day you came in for your first interview. Exaggerating has its place, but not here.

“You were late for an important meeting. Is there something we can do to help you be on time from now on?”

This approach specifies the situation that prompted the need for the feedback you’re giving. Keep the focus on that. If poor performance in that same area continues, then you can bring up the trend at another time, after documenting a few more specific instances.

Addressing specific problems when they occur will reduce the likelihood it will come to the point of needing more severe forms of discipline later.

4. Make Improvement Possible

Some things can’t be changed. If a person lives an hour away and has to drive through traffic, they are probably going to be late sometimes. A bad wreck on the road messes up everyone’s day. That’s an obvious example.

But there are more subtle ways this can play out. It’s very important to keep the attention on a problem that can be fixed – something that has a solution. When you start getting into personality traits, how people react, and those kinds of things, you’re veering into sensitive and risky territory. Try to keep the feedback on actions and behaviors, not on personal traits that are hard (or impossible) to change.

And don’t focus on something in the past that can’t be changed. It may be frustrating, but for negative employee feedback to go well, it needs to look ahead, not behind. What can we do better next time?

5. Make Employee Feedback Part of Your Culture

You don’t want employees feeling like they woke up in an alternative universe. But that’s what can happen if, suddenly after two years on the job, here you are giving them on-the-spot feedback. Even if what you’re saying is great and delivered in a respectful way, the employee will still feel weird. Why? Because you’ve never done it before.

Feedback needs to be frequent and consistent and inclusive – everyone gets some. It’s just part of the culture of growth and improvement.

And, you can set up systems that allow employees to give managers feedback too. That helps everyone buy in to the culture of feedback.

6. Don’t Trespass on Private Property: Protect Your Employee’s Dignity

Every list has a no-brainer, and this is it. Don’t give negative feedback in front of other people. Find a place of privacy so you can discuss the issue dispassionately.

Bonus tip: If your employees believe that whenever they are called to “the office”, it means they screwed up, then you need to find other reasons to call them in too. Don’t let it become the norm that the only time your employees hear from you is when they messed up. That doesn’t create a culture of loyalty, partnership, and growth.

7. Ask Questions First – Don’t Presume

Every situation is different, but it is almost always best to lead with a question or two. Find out something from them that you don’t know for sure. It’s respectful, and it positions them to be more open to hear what you’re about to say.

Employee Feedback Systems: A Key to Employee Retention

Being ignored is one of the worst feelings in the world. This article from Score reports that 42% of small businesses and startups give zero feedback to their employees.

Employees are your assets. Hiring new ones is a lot of work (it takes an entire company to help you do it well – call PainLess Hire if you’re in need of new talent).

To avoid needing to constantly hire new people, get better at keeping more of the employees you already have. One of the secrets to that is to institute an effective, respectful, and consistent system for giving employees feedback – especially negative and constructive feedback.

Do You Thank Your Employees Enough?

One of the best ways to improve your company culture and make people more receptive to negative feedback is to also give plenty of the reverse. No, not positive feedback. Gratitude. Show appreciation for your employees.

Here’s a ready-to-use list of 8 ½ ways to show appreciation for your staff.


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