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How to Share Negative Feedback with an Employee

Sharing negative feedback is a tough responsibility for managers. It’s never easy to look someone in the eye and tell them they didn’t meet the expectations you have for them.

Many people fear this experience because of the wave of emotions that can come out of the person on the receiving end. The employee can get sad, upset, and defensive when hearing their work wasn’t up to par or they made a mistake on the job. These situations can be so uncomfortable that some managers phone it in or avoid sharing criticism with team members altogether.

It’s important to think of delivering negative feedback as a teachable moment. When it’s properly articulated, the employee will likely be receptive and come away understanding what they can do to avoid missteps in the future.

Be calm yet direct

Let’s start by looking at the wrong ways to give negative feedback. It’s obviously inappropriate to get angry or personal when evaluating an employee. They’ll understand you’re not pleased but can also conclude you’re a bad manager and they would be better off changing jobs than trying to improve.

Giving vague, off-hand feedback isn’t the right approach either. It will just confuse and stress out the employee because they’ll sense they did something wrong but won’t know for sure. Being passive aggressive is an easy way to avoid a difficult conversation but rarely results in improved performance.

So what’s the best way to deliver effective feedback? Avoid the extremes of anger and aloofness and take a middle-of-the-road approach. Be reasonable while also being direct. Point out what the employee did wrong, let them know why it’s a mistake, and tell them how they can do better, using clear language and a calm tone.

What about the “compliment sandwich?”

Some people believe in the idea of packing criticism between two examples of positive feedback – a concept known as the “compliment sandwich.” The idea is that it softens the blow for the employee since they’re learning where they need to improve along with what they did right.

The compliment sandwich certainly has merit when a manager is meeting with an employee for a performance review or regular catch up. You don’t necessarily need to give two pieces of positive feedback for every one piece of negative feedback but it makes perfect sense to share the good with the bad.

However, there’s no need to sugarcoat things when speaking with an employee about a specific problem. Trying to be positive while being critical will just disguise the issue that needs to be resolved. Ideas like the compliment sandwich sound good in theory but aren’t an effective way to deliver negative feedback.

Have a conversation about what happened

It’s important to point out that performance-related problems are rarely black and white. An employee can make a mistake due to lack of effort but other times they may have had the best of intentions and things just went wrong.

In these situations, the manager should be empathic and understand the employee’s perspective. Meet with them, provide a clear description of the problem, and ask what happened. Listen closely to their response and learn why they made the choices they did.

These talks provide the opportunity for the teachable moments we mentioned earlier. Respond with additional questions that help the employee learn how they can do better going forward. Ask “how can you avoid this situation in the future?“ and “what will you do differently next time?” You can make a personal connection with them by sharing similar experiences you had in your career and the lessons you learned. The employee will come away feeling like they had a constructive conversation, as opposed to receiving a one-sided criticism of their work.

Create an improvement plan and check in regularly

The goal of sharing negative feedback isn’t to point out an employee’s poor performance. It’s to help them grow and become a successful member of the company.

After you and your team member speak and they commit to doing better, create a plan outlining what you expect them to deliver. Include quantifiable metrics and deadlines, if possible. Then monitor their performance and meet with them on a regular basis to confirm they’re making strides.

If you’ve already gone down this road with the employee, make a formal performance improvement plan (commonly referred to as a PIP) with the help of your organization’s HR department. It should include the caveat that failing to meet the defined outcomes could result in termination. However, if it’s the first time the employee has fallen short of expectations, there is no need to take such a drastic step.

Effective feedback benefits everyone

Delivering feedback is part of being a manager. While giving recognition for a job well done is easy and makes everyone feel good, sharing constructive criticism helps team members meet their true potential.