Everybody loves positive feedback. Praise is catnip to the human brain; we crave it, and while we always hunger for more, even the slightest hint of it can put a smile on our faces for the next few hours. And as a leader, positive feedback is a joy to give—seeing the effect it can have on the happiness of your team is an immensely fulfilling part of the job. 

But what about negative feedback? What about those instances where, unfortunately, a praising word just won’t cut the mustard?

Negative feedback done badly can be disastrous. All it takes is an ill-thought-out comment or an unnecessarily severe put-down to undo weeks of team-building, or to completely demoralise a previously diligent employee. 

Sometimes positive reinforcement is just not possible, however, and learning how to give negative feedback in an acceptable manner is crucial for any businessperson.

For clarity, within this article we use the phrase ‘negative feedback’ rather than ‘advice’ or ‘guidance’, however really these should be interchangeable—if you’re doing it right. If you’re able to utilise the key points below, you'll know just how to give negative feedback to your employees without them ever realising it was a negative at all.

How to give negative feedback the right way

Opt for constructive criticism

Negative feedback framed in a helpful way can be incredibly powerful, and will position you as a mentor to your employees, rather than… more of a despot. 

A core component of your criticism should be the desire to educate; ensure comments are related to the work, rather than personal, and frame them in a way that feels as though you’re working alongside the employee to make their work the best it can possibly be.

Toss the ‘feedback sandwich’ in the bin

A nice comment, a harsh criticism, rounded off with another compliment: anybody who has ever had a work appraisal has experienced this tedious trio. 

In a modern workplace, you’re best off ditching the feedback sandwich for several reasons. For starters, people only tend to remember the last thing you say to them in feedback meetings, which means they may walk out of the room with an ego-boost, reinforcing their behaviour rather than improving it.

Also, this technique is incredibly well-known among both employers and employees, and it’s easy to feel patronised when you realise your employer is feeding you vague, empty compliments – ‘you’re such a great person!’ – in a bid to disguise their criticism.

Further, two bits of good feedback to one negative one can leave your employee believing the good outweighs the bad and that they’re doing an excellent job, leading to confusion down the line when their review shows a far lower score than they expected.

Clarity is key

When learning how to give negative feedback, you’ll often find your comments will be met with a furrowed brow. It’s natural your employee should be confused; it’s unlikely they’d have been aware they were missing the mark. 

Therefore, when giving your negative feedback, don’t mince words. Be honest and talk straight, rather than obfuscating your message with platitudes and business jargon. Speak like a human being, say what needs to be said in a constructive manner, and get it over with in one fell swoop so you can move onto the more productive parts of the conversation.

Show consequences of actions

Sometimes an employee will believe they’ve been doing a brilliant job, and it will feel a betrayal to hear their manager is dissatisfied, especially if there’s been no prior indication of this. 

In order to maintain a healthy relationship between you, aim to show your employee the larger consequences of their negative actions. As an employee it can be very easy to slip into the habit of thinking your work is done in a vacuum. Showing them how their work and the company at large is interlinked can invoke a greater sense of responsibility, pride, and team-spirit.

Cause-and-effect phrases such as ‘I need you to do [blank], because then [blank] will happen, which means [blank]’ can instil a strong sense of direction in the workplace, and will help your employee to view the current negative feedback they receiving as a step towards a better working life for everybody, rather than a personal attack.

Listen and take notes

Everybody deserves the chance to explain themselves. It’s entirely possible that the employee you’ve sat down with has been underperforming for reasons you’ve overlooked—reasons that might even be, in some way, your own doing. 

Be humble, allow your employee plenty of time to say their piece, and be sure to take notes. Mutual note-taking in these circumstances is a sign of not only respect, but of the intention to act on the discussion that has been had.

Make actionable targets

Far too many workplace appraisals feature to-and-fro debates on the merit of the employee in question which result in nothing more than ‘let’s talk again in six months’.

Before walking away from the meeting in which you have divulged your negative feedback, it’s imperative to work with your employee to set down a couple of key points for them to focus on. 

Having small, actionable targets for them to work towards before your next review means they won’t feel helpless or lost, but can instead use their energy to ensure these requirements are met. It’s far more productive, and makes their progress measurable!

Follow up

Pick a suitable time frame in which to revisit your conversation further down the line. With a little luck, if you’ve been constructive in your criticisms, been clear in your feedback and given actionable goals, you should see a marked improvement!

Negative feedback done well is one of the most powerful tools in your arsenal as a leader. Just be sure to remember the points above and practise plenty of respect and empathy. Easy!