How to Give Negative Feedback Without Upsetting Others (or Yourself)

…it’s often regarded as one of the most challenging things to do at work. But we all know that it is important to keep learning and improving. And we do need external input to get better because we cannot observe ourselves from the outside.

The thing is, feedback-giving is often done reactively with judgment (and that’s why it becomes upsetting).

And when it involves judgment on one side, it can easily induce negative reactions from the other like defensiveness and resentment. Responses like “…but I was trying my best”, “you just don’t understand” and even “you do that as well!” are quite common. Some people might respond with silent resentment too.

Getting into arguments or creating disconnect is not the intention of our feedback. But not giving feedback to avoid uncomfortable situation would not serve us, either.

So…. to look at what can be done, it might well be useful to review some important research; it’s more than likely that applying results of the research will help you in this important area of team performance.

Positive or Negative Feedback

It’s well known that most people respond better to positive feedback than to negative feedback.

However, it turns out that negative feedback can work well in certain situations. Research by Stacey Finkelstein (Columbia University), Tal Eyal (Ben Gurion University) and Ayelet Fishbach (University of Chicago) sheds light on the seemingly paradoxical nature of feedback, by making it clear why, when, and for whom negative feedback is appropriate. — Ref 1

First, their study clarified the function that positive and negative feedback serve. Positive feedback (e.g., “Here’s what you did really well…”) increases commitment to the work people do, by enhancing both their experience and their confidence. On the other hand, negative feedback (e.g., “Here’s where you went wrong…”) is informative; it tells people where they need to spend their effort, and offers insight into how they might improve.

Second, they summed up the consistent outcomes they found from the variety of studies they conducted; ‘novices’ (people with less experience and knowledge) sought and responded well to positive feedback and ‘experts’ (people with high level of experience and knowledge) sought and responded well to negative feedback.

Third, they found that both types of feedback could be more effective when they are constructive. To give feedback that produces better outcomes, positive information provided should not be needlessly flattering, and negative information shared should not be unnecessarily detrimental.

So this means that when you are working with new team members, it is better to focus more on giving positive encouragement along the way to boost motivation and confidence. And once people become great on the job and form a sense of confidence, we can empower them to see more about how they can improve their qualities and understanding. And in both situations of giving positive and negative feedback, it is better to be more factual and constructive in our feedback and suggestions. And to give constructive feedback, it is better to design the timing and style of the feedback for effectiveness, rather than giving all feedback immediately, emotionally and publicly.

And now, let’s look at other forms of evaluation and feedback that might be helpful too.

Praising Effort Vs. Talent

Another piece of research conducted by Claudia Mueller and Carol Dweck, expert researchers at Columbia University, offers interesting and instructive insight. They studied 412 fifth graders, ages 10 through 12, comparing the goals and achievements of children praised for their intelligence with those who were commended for making an effort. — Ref 2

The overall findings were that the children who were praised for their effort excelled in making further achievements and those who were told that they were smart were vulnerable to setbacks. “Praising children’s intelligence, far from boosting their self-esteem, encourages them to embrace self-defeating behaviors such as worrying about failure and avoiding risks,’’ said Dweck, lead author of the study. “However, when children are taught the value of concentrating, strategizing and working hard when dealing with academic challenges, this encourages them to sustain their motivation, performance, and self-esteem.’’

Let’s assume that this finding is also relevant to adult behaviors. This would then mean that creating a culture to acknowledge the effort and improvement made by team members as opposed to a culture of praising and rewarding existing talent and ability helps you create a high-performance environment. It also means that team members will not be afraid of trying new things. They are more likely to innovate. They are not scared of making mistakes to get better.

Creating the culture of growth, open-mindedness and courage is what makes businesses, teams and organisations achieve even more. And it can start from you. You can be the most willing person to receive feedback (both positive and negative) and make courageous effort so that you can continuously improve as a leader.

When this is done, your focus on business development becomes much more straightforward. You create real trusting relationships with others around you.

And now, you can simply concentrate on doing the best work that truly matters.


If you want to do more to create positive impact…

You can learn more about the art of making improvements in Masami’s latest book “GIVING BUSINESS: Creating The Maximum Impact in the Meaning-Driven World”.

You can also download the free e-book to find out how you can maximize the impact of your life and business from here.

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