The “improving communication” saga. Episode 5. How to share negative feedback in a constructive way

It’s always hard to receive negative feedback. And in many cases it can also feel hard to give it. But as team leaders we need to become good at sharing feedback to help strengthen our team’s work. 


I’ve seen three general trends on how to give feedback. Some leaders will normally avoid giving it until it’s time for the annual employee review or other formal process. Others will give it in an outburst when they get angry or frustrated. And a third type of leader seems to be able to give negative feedback informally, almost casually, in a manner that is easy to receive and even feels welcomed. 

So how do we get better at giving feedback in this third way? Making it so easy that the person on the receiving end takes it to heart and uses it to improve their work? 

Here are five of my favorite tips. Let me know yours in the comments!


1. Give feedback on the spot, regularly. 

Don’t wait until formal reviews to give feedback. Make sure you give both positive and negative feedback immediately after the event, whether this event is preparing a report, giving a presentation, dealing with a difficult client or beneficiary or other. This way you and your team member will both still have all  the specifics fresh in mind, allowing for a more accurate analysis. 

Giving informal feedback will facilitate your more formal feedback reviews process, as you can go over improvements your team member has gained because of informal feedback. This is

better than having to go over a long list of accumulated issues where your team member could do better next time, which is bound to create pressure and resentment.


2. Be specific and use examples

Since you’re giving feedback right after an event, this should make it easy to give concrete examples, and be specific. This makes your feedback much more useful and constructive. Saying “I think that you were mostly very patient and understanding with the client, except when you said __________” is much more useful than saying “You did mostly fine but showed impatience here and there.”


3. Frame it as an improvement process, as an opportunity to make it better next time. 

Explain why you are giving the feedback and frame it as an opportunity for future improvement, especially if it concerns an activity that will be repeated. You can say “I liked the way you constructed the analysis in the report. Next time I’m thinking it might be good to also include a strengths and weaknesses analysis. What do you think?”. 

Or, “I’m really impressed with your first presentation, I’d like to share some points I think can be improved, as I believe we can start appointing you more regularly to be our spokesperson”. 


4. Ask for permission to give feedback

A simple but powerful tip is to just ask people if they want the feedback in the first place. Of course, they might feel like they don’t have much of a choice if you’re their leader, but asking can always create a space and show your understanding. It will also allow you to feel for any hesitancy in their answer and take a step back, if needed. 

For example, you can say: “Congratulations on organizing the event. I think it was a success. I wrote down some points on what I thought worked best and what could be improved. Would you want me to share these with you? It doesn't have to be now, whenever you feel ready. “


5. Let your team member share their thoughts first

I find that a good conversation starter is asking people what they thought of their own performance. This allows you to check if they have already seen by themselves the improvement points you want to make. In which case, it will suffice to say that you agree with them. 

It also allows you to verify if they’re being too hard on themselves and not seeing what went well, which creates an opportunity to raise these positive points as well. 


6. Ask for reciprocity

A great way to create an ambience of trust and learning, so that feedback is well received, is also asking people to give YOU feedback. When it’s you who is completing a report, giving a presentation or leading an event, make sure to ask your team at the end: what went well? What could have gone better? How can I improve this? This nicely models the learning and positive framing of feedback that we have been talking about. 


Now it’s your turn! What are your favorite ways of giving and receiving feedback? What makes it hard? What works? Let us know in the comments or on social media!