For many people, giving negative feedback to a coworker is even more challenging than receiving it. The most common approach is simply to abstain, avoiding the awkwardness of any confrontation and bottling up the frustration. The result? In the peak moment of stress, the straw will come that breaks the camel’s back, and the criticism comes out so harshly it does far more harm than good. With a bit of nuance, however, you can avoid the most common pitfalls.
1. For the first offense, be specific, not general
When a coworker makes a mistake, even the best managers often feel the need to generalize the correction into a life lesson. Avoid that temptation; such generalizations will often come off condescending and pedantic, which makes the listener defensive. For example, when an employee makes a typo in an important document, reminding the employee that typos can be embarrassing to the company is unnecessary. Nor is it necessary to tell a late employee that showing up late is unprofessional. Instead, keep it simple, e.g. “I found this typo in your work; please correct it and return to me with the new version.” Or: “I noticed you were late today; please be on time so we can hit the ground running.”
What’s the difference? The goal is to convey that you trust this person to get it right. This sort of approach is empowering. By contrast, a lecture on professionalism causes the listener to disengage.
2. When enough is enough, wait 24 hours
When a single mistake turns into a pattern, it’s entirely appropriate to generalize and deliver that much needed lecture on professionalism. But wait until tomorrow. Why? Chances are, you will hit your breaking point at a period of top stress, and I can almost guarantee that two things will happen: first, your tone will be unjustifiably harsh, damaging your relationship; and second, you will not give your employee adequate time to respond to the criticism, leaving the employee stewing rather than learning. Instead, stick to a specific, narrow correction while in the moment–saying whatever is minimally necessary to get the crisis resolved–and leave your reflections on the employee’s shortcomings to tomorrow.
This approach is not that different from when parents tell their children to go to their room and think of what they have done. The time allows the parent to calm down to ensure a rational response, and the child has time to reflect and turn from defensiveness to guilt. This is precisely the outcome you want in your employees: guilt for having made a mistake, not anger at having been attacked at the height of a crisis.
3. Reserve emotion for positive feedback, not negative
It’s common for people to misuse emotion when giving feedback. Ideally, give negative feedback coolly and unemotionally, in the same understated way that you read from a newspaper. Let the facts of the employee’s mistakes speak for themselves. Your calmness will show both that the issue is serious but also that you respect the employee and are treating him or her as an adult. By contrast, when giving positive feedback, showing genuine excitement and pride in the employee’s work is key.
If this sounds basic, be careful. People generally are far more emotive (that is, they find it difficult to hide their feelings) when they are upset than when they are happy. Many top managers are beacons of calm, only letting emotions overrun them in great stress. Consider the contrast that can arise: a person whose negative feedback is spontaneous, generalized, and emotional, while the positive feedback is always coolly delivered. Such a person’s employees will often come to the conclusion that the positivity is contrived, while negative feedback betrays the truly feelings, namely dissatisfaction with the team. I have seen it happen too many times, and in the end, employees slowly lose their confidence and fear the manager’s judgment, destroying morale.
Think back to the last time you were given negative feedback. Did you feel empowered? Or did you feel disrespected? It is no easy task, but finding the right balance is key to getting the most out of your working relationships.