Deliver negative feedback constructively


A benevolent manager is one who delivers negative feedback and corrections to otherwise dependable staffers in a respectful, gentle style. Treat your staffers with respect, and they will respect you in return, and will therefore be more likely to follow your suggestions without push-back.

Some tips on correcting staffers as painlessly and as constructively as possible:

• Pick your battles. If the transgression was relatively minor and unlikely to be repeated, consider just forgetting it.

• Verify your charges. Check that your staffer had been instructed properly and that his alleged mistake was actually his fault and really did happen as you think it did. Do so by interviewing other staffers about what happened, if appropriate; opening your conversation with your wayward staffer by asking him how the mistake happened; and considering whether extenuating circumstances may mitigate his guilt.

• Empathize. It is just as unpleasant for your staffers to receive negative feedback as it is for you to receive negative feedback.

• Privacy, please. While it is great to go public with praise, negative feedback should be delivered only behind closed doors — not in a meeting, hallway, behind an open door or in any other place where others can hear your discussion. The public humiliation that will result from a public flogging will probably only alienate your staffer without necessarily improving his productivity.

• Analyze the causes of mistakes. Consider whether your staffer’s mistake was part of a regular pattern of preventable mistakes, or was perhaps caused by momentary carelessness, boredom, a poor attitude, his need for training or perhaps even your failure to provide clear and comprehensive instructions. The results of your analysis should help you identify which corrective actions would be most helpful to him.

• Give staffers what they need. If a wayward staffer needs training, mentoring, more detailed instructions or troubleshooting support to improve, provide it, if possible.

• Use good timing. If you’re worked up into a lather over your staffer’s mistake, cool down before you discuss the situation with him — or else you might end up spewing unproductive, angry words that you may later regret.

Also, if possible, don’t deliver criticisms on Fridays. If you do, your criticized staffer will probably spend the weekend stewing over his fall from grace and twisting in the wind about the ultimate fallout from his mistake. By contrast, if you deliver your criticism on another weekday, your staffer will be more likely to dive back into his work without excessive rumination.

Also, start your discussion with your staffer when you have a significant block of free time, rather than when you’re time-pressed and will therefore be tempted to deny your staffer a chance to respond to your criticism.

• No negative e-mails. You should deliver negative feedback (and negative comments of any sort to anyone, for that matter), only in person and face-to-face. However, if such contact is impossible, discuss the issue by telephone — but never by e-mail.

Why are negative e-mails verboten? Because e-mails lack soul. They don’t reveal tone of voice, facial cues or body language. Therefore, it is difficult for the sender of a negative e-mail to gauge the receiver’s true reactions to it — no matter how courteous his response e-mail may be. Therefore, you will never know whether your staffer really “heard” you, or whether your e-mail only triggered resentment or another reaction that may warrant follow-up from you. Plus, it is easy for negative e-mails to be misunderstood and therefore backfire.

What’s more, the one-sided nature of a critical e-mail deprives its recipient of an opportunity to immediately respond. I once heard that sending criticism by e-mail is like “lobbing a grenade over a wall and then running away.” The probable result: anger and alienation.

What’s more, e-mails may live forever and eventually be purposely or accidentally forwarded to unintended recipients.


About Author

Lily Whiteman is a federal communications expert and author of “How to Land a Top-paying Federal Job,” and a trainer of career advancement skills and communication skills. Her website is Ask your career questions by email to or by Twitter to @Lilymwhiteman.

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