Giving negative feedback the right way

by Michael Mata17 Oct 2016
A new study has revealed that negative feedback can make employees actively avoid their critics and become disengaged, but there are ways to achieve positive results.

Harvard University and the University of North Carolina’s Shopping for Confirmation: How Threatening Feedback Leads People to Reshape Their Social Networks, revealed that workers coped with negative feedback by “reshaping their networks,” which often made their work performance even worse.  

“Humans are notoriously self-deceptive in their self-appraisal efforts, consistently ignoring their flaws in an attempt to maintain a positive self-concept,” noted the report. Organisations are aware of this and counter it by gathering various forms of developmental feedback from others in the belief that it will be more honest than self-assessments, which in turn motivates self-improvement.

“We propose that these feedback processes are, in fact, often ineffective because they represent threats to recipients’ positive self-concept,” the researchers said. They analysed four years of peer feedback and social network data from a company in the agribusiness industry and discovered that employees—in the face of feedback more negative than their self-assessments—reshaped their social networks in order to eliminate or attenuate the threat brought about by negative feedback.    

People’s strong need to idealise themselves and cover their flaws may have an evolutionary purpose. Negative feedback can undermine self-esteem, which in turn leads to depression and negative affectivity.

Various empirical studies have also shown that employees’ responses to negative feedback are complex. One meta-analysis found that one-third of feedback interventions resulted in lower post-feedback performance. Other studies show that employees’ self-assessment remains unchanged even in the face of disconfirming feedback. 

Giving negative feedback the right way
In light of such findings, how should managers dispense negative feedback in a way that actually produces the desired change?

Start with an honest compliment
Managers should begin the feedback session by giving an honest compliment. "Effective feedback focuses on the positive while still identifying areas for further growth and better outcomes," states management
consultant Sally Narodick.

Give it in small doses
Experts suggest providing negative feedback in small doses. Stockpiling negative feedback and then dumping it on recipients could overwhelm them. "Feedback is best given real time, or immediately after the fact," explains management coach Kate Ludeman.

Avoid venting
Negative feedback should be delivered in a neutral tone using measured language. Venting criticism will only create resentment and passive resistance.

Demonstrate empathy
People don’t open up unless they feel that their concerns have been heard. Effective feedback "means paying attention and giving high-quality feedback from an empathic place, stepping into the other person's shoes, appreciating his or her experience, and helping to move that person into a learning mode," says Ludeman.