Giving Difficult Feedback


Giving feedback is one of the most important parts of a manager's job. It is also one of the most difficult. Managers often avoid attempting it but this can lead to poor performance becoming endemic. But doing it badly can result in conflict, bad feeling, a demotivated team and worse performance than before.


Whilst giving negative feedback is never likely to be enjoyable for either party, it can be done in such a way as to raise the performance of the person receiving the feedback whilst maintaining his or her self-esteem and goodwill towards the organisation. This requires skill and care on the part of the manager.


The purpose of negative feedback



The purpose of giving negative feedback is to bring about an improvement in performance. Never forget that. People at work can annoy you for all sorts of reasons but there is no point in giving negative feedback unless by doing so you will be able to bring about an improvement in performance.


Before you consider giving negative feedback, ask yourself why you want to do it. If the answer is to clear the air, to get it off your chest or to make you feel better then you probably should not give the feedback. If the answer is to solve a performance problem or to help improve the performance of an individual or team then you should give it.


Be clear and precise about the feedback you want to give.


Before you think about how you will give the negative feedback you must state, preferably in writing, the precise performance problem that you want to address. If you cannot state precisely the exact nature of the performance problem in objective terms then you are unlikely to be successful in bringing about a change in performance.


Keep an open mind



When giving negative feedback, keep an open mind. There are two sides to every story and the person receiving your feedback will probably see things differently. Be prepared to change your view of the situation if the other person offers facts or explanations that you hadn't considered.


Seek agreement.


The person receiving feedback must agree with you about the problem before you can make any progress. People will not change their behaviour if they do not see anything wrong with their existing behaviour. This agreement must be willingly given - you can't impose it. You have to keep listening and talking until you both see the problem the same way. And this may well require you to change your own view of the problem in the process.


Focus on the facts not the person



You shouldn't make comments on someone's attitude or thought processes because you can't know what goes on inside a person. But you do have a right to comment on their performance because this is what your organisation is paying for and is a large part of what you are responsible for.


Always focus on the precise performance problem and what should be done to address it.


Be respectful and courteous



If your primary consideration is to improve people's performance, you need to help them to feel good about themselves" It is therefore essential to treat people with courtesy and respect when giving negative feedback, as it is at other times.


Be prepared to take criticism



Someone receiving negative feedback may direct criticism back at you.


Remember that your objective is to raise performance. This means engaging with the problem, whatever it may be. If an individual criticises your actions, listen calmly to what he or she has to say and engage constructively with the counter-criticism. It is possible that your own actions may have contributed to the problem and you must be prepared to discuss them openly and non-defensively.


The process of giving effective negative feedback



There are five stages in a successful and effective delivery of negative feedback:

  • Clarify
  • Explain
  • Discuss
  • Agree
  • Review


Draw up a written statement of the precise performance problem. The discipline of doing this will help you to think clearly about the problem that is concerning you. Two very useful phrases to use in your statement are:


The performance that I expected to see was .......


The performance that I am actually seeing is ..............


Writing a statement of the precise performance problem can be a frustrating process. Very often, you just know that the person is not doing a good job, but you find it difficult to express the problem clearly and objectively.


 A common reason for difficulty is that you are not entirely clear about exactly what you want the individual to do. You might know good performance when you see it but find it difficult to define.


If you find it difficult to write down the precise performance , the chances are that you or the organisation have not been sufficiently clear in defining the aims, objectives and standards of the job that the individual is doing. If this is the case the individual will certainly not be clear about what he or she is expected to do and so won't be able to do it.


It is important to approach the Clarify stage in good faith and with an open mind. It is very tempting to try to fix the evidence to support your initial opinion. For example, you begin your clarification with the strong view that the individual is obstructive and uncooperative. You then look for examples that prove this to be the case. This is particularly tempting if you have told your peers or your manager of your opinion. Nevertheless, you must set aside your previous convictions and take a calm and clear look at what the individual is actually doing and how this compares with what you expect them to be doing.


Once you have written down your statement of the precise performance problem that is worrying you, and prepared your supporting examples, you are ready to begin giving your feedback to the other person.


Always give negative feedback in private. Praise can be given in public, but not negative feedback. Use a comfortable environment where you will not be interrupted and make sure that you have enough time to conduct the discussion fully.


As soon as any niceties (offering drinks etc.) are over, tell the individual that you have a concern that you wish to discuss with them. A very effective phrase is:


I have a concern about your performance that,would like to discuss with you.


This phrase tells the other person what the discussion is about whilst being neutral as to the outcome. You are not saying that the individual's performance is at fault, which might provoke an argument. You are saying that you have a concern and nobody can argue with that.





As soon as you have set the scene with your opening phrase, signal how you intend to conduct the discussion by saying something like:


I would like to explain my concern and then invite you to give me your point of view on what I am about to say.


Your preparation and your use of carefully prepared phrases should help you with any nerves and should reduce the stress for the individual. Usually both nerves and stress fade as the discussion proceeds.


Now explain your concern in terms of how it seems to you. This is a crucial technique. The only thing you know at this stage is how things seem to you. You don't yet know all the facts because the other person has not spoken. Explaining how things seem to you avoids causing the other person to think that you have made up your mind already. Use the phrases you prepared while you were clarifying the precise performance problem:


The performance that I expected to see was .........


The performance that I am actually seeing is ..............


The strength of this phrasing is that you are not directly criticising them. You are stating how it appears to you. They may disagree, but they should not be offended.





Now that you have explained your concern, the next step is to ask the individual if he or she agrees with your view. Use a phrase such as:


Tell me how you see the situation?


Listen and ask questions in order to understand the other person's view. It may be that the other person doesn't agree with you about the facts. Discuss the situation until you are both able to reach agreement.






Seek to agree upon:

  • What the individual is expected to do
  • What he or she is actually doing?
  • The action you are each going to take to correct the problem
  • The time scale for taking this action
  • How you will know when the problem is solved


This last step is easily overlooked and yet is vital. It is easy to make a statement like, "I'm going to improve my quality" and then find that you cannot agree on whether this has been achieved or not. Each step should have an agreed measure. For example: "I'm going to improve my quality until fewer than half a percent of my widgets fail the quality test".


Agreement on all these points is crucial. Without it you won't be able to achieve any improvement in performance.


The best way to be sure that you do have an agreement is to ask the other person to summarise what they think it is. This way, you will be able to pick up any misunderstandings, disagreements or differences in emphasis and you will be able to address those before reaching a final agreement.





Once you have given feedback and agreed upon the necessary steps to improve performance or solve the problem you must monitor the outcome to ensure that you each do everything that you have agreed to do. You should agree a time and place to review progress with the individual and to give him or her further feedback as necessary.


Finally, don't forget to give positive feedback if the individual successfully improves his or her performance to the standard required. Remember to thank people for their efforts in improving their performance and reassure them that they are valued and respected members of your team.

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