Giving Negative Performance Feedback

Sara Knapp

Post by Sara Knapp, Executive Coach

Once, I went all the way to work – walking along streets, on the bus, subway, and through the people-packed underground walkway in downtown Toronto – with a coat-hanger dangling from the belt in back of my coat. No one said a thing.

Why? I think it’s about if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all. And I think it’s wrong. It’s true that negative feedback can be harder to give than receive. But learning to do it is a necessity for leaders, parents, coaches, and anyone with a vested interest in the development and growth of others...and themselves. 

Here are a few tips to help you deliver the tough messages: 

Recognize that feedback of any sort is really a gift. Most people’s greatest opportunities—and most serious threats—are in their blind spots. As a leader, your job is to make sure your team members aren’t flying blind, that they know where their blind spots are, and what’s in them. So shift your mindset from I’m hurting this person to I’m helping this person. Delivering your message in the spirit of giving allows it to be received as the gift it really is.

Focus on the facts. People become defensive when they feel that their identity or ego is under attack. The way to avoid this is to focus on specific facts and behaviours rather than on generalizations or labels. And never ascribe negative intent to the behaviours you observe. Unless you’re a mind reader, you have no real understanding of what is motivating someone’s behaviour. “You have a coat hanger attached to your belt” is a lot easier to hear and respond to than, “You’ve become careless about your appearance because you’re so stressed”. 

Be clear on what success looks like. People want to do a good job. If they aren’t performing up to expectations it could be because they don’t really understand what is expected. “Smile, nod, look clients in the eye, and wish them a good day” is a lot clearer than “Be friendly.” So if you want others to be successful, make sure they know what success looks like. 

Finally, know that despite your best intentions, fact-based examples, and clarity of expectations, your feedback might not be received well. Not all gifts are welcome. But don’t let that stop you from doing what your role as a leader requires you to do. And to do it well.