The Art of Delivering Negative Feedback
In the last episode of The Breaking Through Experience, I started to explore the art of giving feedback, a skill that can benefit you in your career, but also in your private life!
First of all, let me clarify that feedback can be positive or negative. For some reason the word “feedback” sounds like a problem: Feedback? Omg we have to change something!
It is true that feedback is typically associated with change, but feedback can also reinforce a positive behaviour! Actually, I would encourage you to find opportunities for praise and gratitude because positive feedback helps people grow, it helps people cement what they already know and build on top of it.
In the first episode, I focused more on delivering negative feedback because mastering this skill is very difficult! Saying “Great job! Continue in this direction!” is easy, everyone is happy. But saying “This is not good, we need to change” is way more difficult.
Giving negative feedback is an art because most humans have a tendency to take things personally and get offended.
You could restrain from offering advice: “Don’t ask me for feedback! I do not want to give you feedback so that you don’t get angry at me!”
However, if you want to be a great friend, a great Leader, a great partner, a great parent, there will be times when your feedback is required and it must land the right way.
Who can give feedback? Everyone. Literally everyone. Feedback is not for the Managers only. Anyone who cares about someone’s development can give feedback; we can learn so much from one another!
So why don’t we typically give feedback, especially if it is negative?
The first Manager I had once told me: Giving feedback is either throwing a brick or throwing a ball.
If you allow a football metaphor here, you can be the player making the assist for your teammate to score, or you can be the player who kicks the ball straight to his face and breaks his nose.
When you give someone a feedback, it can be an assist, it can be something that allows them to become a higher version of themselves, but it can also be a brick thrown at their face at 100 km/h.
How can we deliver feedback the right way?
In her book “Radical candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity”, Kim Scott presents 4 types of feedback personalities, depending on
how much the giver cares about the receiver
how much the giver is honest and challenges the receiver
If the deliverer does not care about the receiver and does not share honest feedback, this is called MANIPULATIVE INSINCERITY.
This is the worst kind of feedback you can ever offer! And in my opinion guys, this is not even a feedback, this is a waste of time! Trust is not build and change does not happen.
If the deliverer cares about the receiver but they do not share what they truly think, this is called RUINUOS EMPATHY.
Kind people, who are afraid of hurting someone’s feelings, practice ruinous empathy. Why is it ruinous? Well, since you are not being honest, the receiver might think “I am doing well! They appreciate me!” and not actually change behaviour, which is counterproductive in the long-run. You will have to criticize them in the future and they will resent you: “You should have told me this sooner!”.
If the deliverer is not tactful, thoughtful, and is too direct in sharing the feedback, this is called OBNOXIOUS AGGRESSION.
This feedback is too much to take in. The receiver gets defensive when presented with a harsh feedback and they do not perceive that you truly care about them. They will be like “Omg this is so mean!” and this can lead to resentment, especially if the person is fragile.
Finally, if you care about the person and you tell them the truth, what they need to hear, this is called RADICAL CANDOR.
This is golden feedback. The receiver sees how much you empathize and care about them, and appreciates that you are honest with them because you want the best for them!
Radical candor, also called tactfully direct, leads to profound change.
Here are a couple of tools which are very simple yet incredibly powerful when you want to share some feedback at work and in life!
The first tool is called SBI.
S stands for Situation – B for Behaviour – I for Impact
First of all, you want to clearly picture the situation
What are the when and the where of the situation to which you are referring? Was it yesterday in the cafeteria? Last week at the team meeting? This morning when we met a client?
Secondly, you need to describe with extreme accuracy the behaviour
Important: it must be a fact that you directly observed. Do not start saying “John told me Mary told him Steven told her that you did that”. Your employee will rightfully ask you: "How can you be sure this is what happened?”. Describe something you witnessed first-hand!
Finally, quantify the impact of the negative behaviour
Explain how their actions affected you or the company. Use numbers if possible.
What is the impact if they keep doing that? Quantifying the impact also helps you understand if you are giving feedback on something relevant, or if you are giving feedback on a personal preference of yours.
Explaining the impact helps the employee understand the mistake and take a corrective action. Give them a good reason to behave differently. Explain how a different action leads to a different result, and how the different result also benefits them!
Let me give you an example of how a Manager uses the SBI tool to give feedback:
Hi Jake, listen this morning at the team meeting Julie was keen to present her ideas for the team activities; however you were very enthusiastic, this lead you to talk for most of the time and Julie seemed sad because she did not have the chance to speak. Even if your contributions are always on point, I’d encourage you to be mindful of your teammates’ perspectives. Giving space to Julie does not mean you will not have room to express your ideas, it’s actually the opposite! If you support Julie and practice active listening, she will feel like her voice matters to you and the team, and in turn she will become a supporter when it’s your turn to speak
You see how this simple framework allows you to pass the feedback effectively:
The situation is clear --> Team meeting
The behaviour is clear --> Jake did not let Julie speak
This caused the impact --> Julie to be sad
In the same situation --> The team meeting
A different action --> Jake leaving space for Julia and listening to her
Will lead to a different result --> Julie feeling heard and Jake also benefiting because he now has an ally
What if feelings are involved?
If you would like to give feedback to a friend or a spouse, in a situation when feelings are involved, an interesting framework is offered by Simon Sinek.
Specific situation +
Specific action your friend/partner took +
How you felt because of that action +
(optional) Potential solution +
Consequences if this happens repeatedly.
It’s so simple, so effective!
Here is an example:
I haven’t seen you all week because you were out with friends. I am often home alone and you come back very late so we never have the chance to speak because we work during the day. I am more than happy that you see friends and enjoy but I also want to be a part of your life and I would be happy to hang out with you guys or have one dinner per week just for us. If this continues, I am afraid this relationship cannot work out
You have pointed out:
The specific situation --> Every evening
The specific action --> Your partner is never at home
How you felt --> Lonely
(optional) Potential solution --> One dinner per week just for the two of you
Consequences --> If this happens repeatedly, this is not a relationship that can work
What should I consider before offering feedback?
Be curious about the context and ask questions to better understand the situation. Our brain has a tendency to draw negative conclusions.
If you want to be a great Leader, you must oblige yourself to assume good faith. Never assume someone did something wrong on purpose because believe me, this is not usually the case! Everyone is trying to do the best they can do with the resources they have.
Bad news first!
How many times have you received feedback and the person says
“Hey great job here! This was amazing.. But I have some critics here”
and they start listing problems. You will be surprised because everything seemed to be fine!
Neuro-Linguistic Programming studies show that, if we use a BUT in our sentence, anything that comes before the but gets automatically deleted by our mind!
So if you say “You look great BUT I don’t like the shoes”, what the other person hears is “I don’t like the shoes”. Does it sound a familiar situation with someone you love? If you really have good and bad news to share, give the bad news first. “I don’t love the shoes, BUT you look great overall!”. The emphasis is on the last words.
The deliverer matters!
Let’s say, for instance, that you and your teammate have a discussion. Another teammate, same level of seniority, approaches you and tells you “Hey this is not a nice behaviour, I want you to be nicer”. You will probably be “What? Excuse me? Who are you, my Manager? No right? Then shut up, thank you. Don’t tell me what I should or shouldn’t do because that is my Manager’s responsibility”.
The deliverer matters, if you want to deliver feedback, make sure you are in a position where the feedback is welcome! Usually, the person involved should share the feedback, unless both parties agree on relying on a third party.
Is the receiver ready to receive the feedback?
When I was in high-school, one night we went to a club and there was a fight. Everyone was freaking out, and I remember this guy saying “No worries I know the guy, let me speak to him”. He gets close to the guy, he tells him something, and this guy punches him straight in the face.
Why did that happen? Besides the fact that the friend was drunk, the deliverer did not consider that the receiver was not in a position to receive his message! Before giving people advice, make sure these people appreciate your advice.
If you are a new manager and you find yourself in a tough spot, say something like “I know we have never spoken before, but I feel that the situation needs to be addressed”.
Never discuss what is “true”, what is “fair” and “whose fault it is”
We all have different perceptions! When two people fight, they are both convinced that they are right. When you deliver feedback, try to be objective about the context, otherwise we risk discussing about opinions! Opinions are very personal and context-dependent.
Some people hate giving feedback so they leave it as last item for the day. They send an email before going to bed! How is the receiver going to react? They will not appreciate it. They do not have time to reply or even to call to ask for clarifications. It is much better speaking to them the following day at work. You have to make this effort!
When delivering feedback, be careful about identity, of how people perceive themselves. Some people are fragile.
If you tell them “This quarter you did not perform well”, they start thinking “Omg now the entire company will think I am a poor performer, my team will not respect me”.
In a relationship, if you state “This week you did not have a few minutes for me” your partner might think “Omg I am a bad partner, they will leave me, not love me anymore” etc.
Remember to reassure people. A feedback is just a feedback. A feedback is something you take objectively, not personally, and say “Ok, what can I learn from this?”. It’s the first step of an upward progression.