Giving Negative Feedback

Block diagram for feedback
Block diagram for feedback (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have to admit that I hate the word “feedback”.  To me, it’s basically like saying, “I’m about to tell you just how much you suck, but I’m going to put it in business terms so that you can’t get pissed off or cry about it.”  (I may be exaggerating slightly.)

Nonetheless, no matter how I feel, I sometimes have to give negative feedback.  Here are the guidelines that I’ve figured out (mostly by doing things the wrong way):

  • ALWAYS always always get their side of the story.  I can’t tell you the number of times someone reported something “bad” about a geek that looked very different once I had both sides of the story.
  • Keep your emotions out of it. If possible, make sure you’re no longer pissed off before giving the feedback.  Sleep on it, drink on it, kvetch to your spouse about it – whatever you need to do to make sure that you’re not seething when you give the feedback, because, you need to…
  • Make sure it doesn’t get personal.  There’s a big difference between saying, “That came across as harsh,” and, “You’re harsh.” This isn’t about who they ARE, this is about what they did or how they behaved in the situation.
  • Be constructive. It’s not useful to tell them what they do wrong without telling them what they should have done instead. You want to help them learn? Guide them.  For example, one of my geeks once ended up on the floor of his office with a back spasm.  I happened to notice it when I realized all my other geeks were gathered around and making fun of him.  My feedback to them went something like this:

Remember when so-and-so was in his office on the floor with back pain and you were pointing and laughing?  Yeah. So, in the future, please first tell HR, then tell me, THEN point and laugh.  Got it?

  • Make sure they hear you. Especially if you’ve forgotten to leave your emotions at home, it’s easy to say things that wound your geeks and cause them to tune you out or emotionally shut down.  Make sure they’re responding to you normally, but if they’re not…
  • Let them go process it and then get back to you. You don’t NEED them to learn their lessons right away (or feel sorry or whatnot).  You need them, instead, to truly internalize what you’ve said in order for them to do things more correctly in the future. Especially if you’re managing introverts (which many geeks are), you need to give them feedback, tell them how you would have preferred things to go, and then let them go process it so that they can internalize it.  Always leave the conversation open so that they can come back to you with questions or arguments in the future.

This post is getting long, so I’ll leave examples to a future post.  However, what have I missed? What lessons have you learned about giving or receiving feedback?

5 thoughts on “Giving Negative Feedback

  1. I’ve often heard that one should say something positive at the start of the difficult conversation, even if the positive comment has nothing to do with the substance of the criticism (“I like your work ethic, but you have to stop treating X like S.”) I think that signals that you are, if not exactly on their side, not personally offended, and also might raise the tone to a more professional level.

    N.B. this isn’t an official “ILTA KM Blog” comment, of course, just me kmhobbie.

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