How to Give Negative Performance Feedback To Employees Without Discouraging Them
It’s easy to give a compliment or supportive encouragement to your employees. What isn’t as easy is delivering tough news or any sort of criticism; that takes practice.
And more specifically, many managers struggle to give their employees criticism in a way that communicates their intent clearly and provides guidance that actually results in positive change, all while not leaving the employee totally discouraged and deflated.
Learn how to give negative performance feedback to your employees without discouraging them.
6 Tips for Giving Negative Performance Feedback
1. Choose Your Moment Well
Like all difficult conversations, there are good time and bad times to initiate them. Choose a moment when your initial emotions of frustration or anger have passed. You’ll be more likely to have a productive conversation when you’re feeling level headed. Also avoid calling someone out for their poor performance in front of others, or in any other way than privately and in-person. This means that instead of sending them a quick message via email or Slack, request a private meeting with your employee to lay out your concerns.
2. Be Direct
The oft-cited “compliment sandwich” approach advises that you sandwich your negative feedback between two compliments. In practice, this usually turns out to be a terrible idea, as your employee will likely hear the initial and final compliments without fully processing the negative feedback.
Instead, be direct and ask questions to make sure they understand where you’re coming from. Now is not the time for vague language or throwaway compliments to soften the blow. This just makes employees feel frustrated that you’re not being straightforward and unsure about what their next steps should be. For example, you might begin with “Jim, I wanted to talk to you about your performance on XYZ project. I noticed that you made significantly fewer sales calls than the rest of the team, and I wanted to talk about how we can improve. Can you walk me through your perspective on how you think that went?”
3. Use Growth-Oriented Language
The language you choose really matters in how your message will be received. Rather than focusing on faults in your employee’s performance, frame them as areas for growth. Research has shown that focusing on growth, rather than achievement, stimulates greater changes in behavior. To use growth-oriented language, emphasize your employee’s hard work and effort rather than becoming fixated on specific milestones of achievement or things they have to “fix”. You could even try using the phrases “improve”, “get even better at”, “build upon” as you deliver your feedback, which helps show that you credit them for the work they are doing.
4. Focus on Observed Behaviors, Not the Person
Giving negative performance feedback always goes poorly when your employee begins to feel defensive. Rather than internalizing the information, he or she will begin mentally coming up with arguments or ways to discount your feedback. Making comments directed at your employee as a person (or being so vague that they take things personally) is a surefire way to elicit this defensive response. Instead, focus on specific, observed behaviors. For example, don’t say “You aren’t learning this new software fast enough.” Instead, say “I’ve noticed that it’s taking you longer to process claims since we launched this program 6 weeks ago. Let’s talk about how to make things more efficient.” If you know you need to give negative feedback, prepare for the meeting by jotting down two or three concrete examples of problematic behaviors to frame your discussion.
5. Stop Talking and Listen
When giving negative feedback, the part where you actually speak is a small part of the process. Make sure you leave ample time to sit back, close your mouth, and listen to your employee. Ask questions to elicit the underlying reason for performance problems. Listening to your employees’ fears, personal challenges, or other factors that are impeding performance will give you a more holistic picture of what is driving the problematic behavior. It also helps them come out of the conversation feeling more empowered as well, because it’ll feel like they came up with some of the conclusions and next steps on their own. Your job is to make sure that you use all of the information that you get from them to collaboratively create a plan to remediate performance and move on.
6. End the Conversation Strategically
The primacy and recency effects in psychology suggest that we most remember the first and last things people tell us. That means you need to close your conversation in a way that leaves your employee with the right impression. Ideally, this should be done in two steps. First, reaffirm your confidence in your employee and emphasize that you know they are committed to making things right (or supporting the team, or whatever seems appropriate to the situation). Then, reiterate the bottom line of your conversation, including any agreed-upon next steps to remedy or monitor performance. This ensures that both parties are on the same page about any performance remediation plans.
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