Positive ways to give negative feedback


My May 3 column explained how to give negative feedback and correct otherwise diligent staffers in a humane, respectful way. Some more tips.

* Remember your purpose. Your negative feedback should be designed to provide constructive feedback that will help your staffers increase their contributions to your office — not to embarrass or demean or “gotcha” them.

* Watch your voice. When you criticize or make suggestions to subordinates, your tone should be as calm, tactful and respectful as when you speak to your superiors.

* Don’t pry into personal matters. Don’t relate your staffer’s mistakes to his personal problems if he does not bring them up himself. For example, avoid saying things like, “I heard you recently went through a breakup. Is that why you have been slacking off?”

* Don’t be personally offensive. When possible, focus on your staffer’s work and results, not on your staffer himself. For example, rather than saying, “You are always so careless on your reports,” say, “In the future, it would be helpful if your reports went through more quality controls” or “There is something we need to change in our procedure; these reports should go through more quality controls.”

* Use gentle phrasing. Phrase your criticism with considerate, nonconfrontational language that will allow otherwise dependable staffers to save face. For example, suppose your assistant is usually diligent and efficient, but you know he is resistant to admitting mistakes. When you must correct him, you could allow him to save face by saying, “X happened, perhaps you could take care of it,” or “I just wanted to tell you that X is the person to consult on these matters instead of Y.”

* Give rationales. Explain why it is important for your staffer to correct his approach and follow your instructions, if such rationales are not self-evident.

* Explain expectations. Clearly define needed improvements.

* Use the sandwich method. If possible, position your criticism between compliments. Your opening compliment will ingratiate your staffer to you and thereby make him more receptive to your criticism, and your closing salvo will leave him in an enthusiastic mood, rather than a resentful one.

For example, suppose your staffer is consistently finishing quarterly reports late, and you want to tell him to start meeting deadlines. You could phrase your feedback like this: “Jim, the quality of your quarterly reports is excellent; they are complete and reader-friendly. But the reports have come in late every month. The deadlines are important because they are congressionally mandated, and so late reports give our agency a black eye. Please make a special effort to finish the reports on time in the future. Do you need any additional support or trouble-shooting help to do so?” Then, after the staffer answers your question and pledges to meet deadlines, you could end the conversation by saying, “I know that you will keep up the high quality of your reports, and I look forward to reading your next one.”

By contrast, if your corrections are delivered without or before positive statements, you will probably alienate your staffer. This principle was recently demonstrated by a manager who started his discussion with a wayward staffer with criticism and then ended it with positive feedback. The manager took this approach because he assumed that his staffer would prefer to clear the air of negativity before discussing his achievements. “I was wrong,” the manager says. “My staffer was obviously offended by my criticism and ended up tuning out before I even got to the good stuff.”

* Allow rebuttals. Give your staffers opportunities to respond to your criticisms or suggestions, and keep an open mind to their viewpoints.

* No gossiping. If possible, don’t discuss your staffers’ mistakes and how angry they made you with other staffers.

* Reward good behavior. When your staffer corrects his approach, compliment his improvement.

* Be fair. Throughout each rating period, compliment your staffers at least as freely and enthusiastically as you give them negative feedback.


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 IGotTheJob.net. Ask your career questions by email to lwhiteman@federaltimes.com or by Twitter to @Lilymwhiteman.

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