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The art of giving negative staff feedback without hurting feelings

Negative feedback shouldn't be seen as a bad thing. People learn from their mistakes, after all. But take some time to come up with a game plan before giving staff criticism.
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More than previous generations, millennials demand continuous feedback to stay motivated. They crave and expect an ongoing and regular managerial style and are quick to jump ship if those demands aren’t met.

In fact, Gallup research unveiled that only 29% of millennial workers are engaged at work when staff performance feedback isn’t given.

But it’s a tricky area to navigate. The workforce consists of numerous generations, not all of which value the thought of such an evaluation. Also, it often means telling employees what they’ve done wrong in order to steer them down the right path.

Perhaps their performance is under par, they haven’t successfully reflected the company’s values or their behaviour has clashed with others’.

Either way, while everyone knows the saying “it’s not personal, it’s business”, being told your mistakes can be a bitter pill to swallow.

So how do you deliver constructive criticism without hurting someone’s feelings?

Nip it in the bud

If you’re afraid of how criticism will impact your team, then you’re not alone. Authors Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman wrote in the Harvard Business Review that managers believe giving negative feedback is stressful – to the point where they don’t sleep the night before.

As a result, the duo said, “some managers resist giving their direct reports any kind of critical feedback at all”.

But negative feedback often comes hand-in-hand with mistakes and clashes – no matter how small. Give them feedback quickly – don’t delay.

The more time that passes, the harder it will be for the employee to not take it personally. They’ll stew in confusion. Why didn’t you tell them before? Did everyone else on the team know?

They’ll be less likely to take constructive criticism on board, instead growing resentful. This is a feeling you want to avoid at all costs, especially if the mistake was small.

Give them scope for improvement

On The Workplace forum, one user asked a question that many tend to neglect in the feedback process. Your choice of words.

“I find him very difficult to work with due to his behaviour,” the user said. “How do I help him improve and not just ‘blow off steam’?”

Numerous very’s were added to the mix, and to top things off the user asked whether it would be appropriate to tell that person exactly how difficult they were being.

But telling someone their behaviour is (“very, yes very”) difficult to handle, in turn, gives the employee no information on how to improve. What element of their behaviour is irksome? Why does it matter that they change it? How could they improve things?

Remember, these are humans, and you have to balance the good with the bad. Don’t just throw them in the deep end without a life-boat.

Of course, don’t overstress what they’re doing wrong. Use simple and concise words. Try to let them down gently. Aggressive words will only make things worse. That leads us to…

Being empathetic and positive

Nobody makes mistakes on purpose – and there will be times employees don’t realise where they’ve gone wrong.

Before you lay down the law, find out why the clash or mistake occurred. Is the stress piling up or was it just human error? No one is perfect, after all. And as is the Silicon Valley craze, to fail means to learn something of value.

So be empathetic in delivering your message – unless you’re 100% sure they know they were in the wrong behaviour-wise.

It’s also been suggested that positive feedback beforehand helps soften the blow. This way they won’t feel under attack. They’ll know you still value them – and will be more open to hearing your suggestions.

The rest is a matter of consistency. Do you take employees to the side to deliver your criticism or use it as momentum to educate the rest of the team? Will you make a positive sandwich or leave the feedback filling as your parting words?

When your workforce know what to expect, they won’t feel like they’ve been put in a corner.

All of the above is an exercise in trust. Being responsible for a team, you can’t let even the smallest matter lie. But that doesn’t mean you should go full-speed ahead. The way you tackle the subject, your words and tone of voice, will all help shape a positive outcome.

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About Author

Shané Schutte

Shané Schutte is the deputy editor of Real Business, with a particular specialism in employment and business law, human resources, information technology and sales/marketing.

Real Business