How I give negative feedback

emotion icon
emotion icon (Photo credit: Łukasz Strachanowski)

In my previous post, I talked about how to give negative feedback. In this post, I’ll describe the steps that I personally take when I have to give negative feedback to someone.

  1. Do my homework. First I have to make sure that I know what I’m talking about and why I need to give the feedback.  This also gives me a chance to make sure my emotions aren’t leading the conversation. Especially with geeks, I’ve found that facts trump emotion every time, so making sure I have factual arguments rather than emotional ones is key.
  2. Speak privately. Unless I’m giving negative feedback to a group, I always make sure my conversation is private. If I have a regular 1:1 and the feedback can wait until then, great.  Otherwise, I have to find a way to speak privately without interruption. This also means that I’m careful not to blindside my geek on the way to somewhere or in the middle of something – I have to make sure I have  her attention as well. Ideally, I also have Kleenex on hand just in case (although I don’t remember often making my geeks cry).
  3. Say, “I wanted to talk about situation x. Can you tell me what happened?” I never start with my side of the story. I’m a huge believer in the idea that there’s my side of the story, her side of the story, and then the truth. So I need to get the geek’s side of the story in order to even remotely approach the truth (this is especially true when I have to give negative feedback about a situation that I heard about second-hand). Letting the geek go first helps me do the following:
    1. Understand how she saw the situation.
    2. Understand the reason behind why she took the actions she did.
    3. Understand whether she already feels bad about it – does she understand why the situation didn’t go well, or does she think everything is fine? I approach the rest of the conversation VERY differently depending on her current perspective.
    4. Find out whether she has already taken steps to fix the situation.
    5. Find out whether she knows what she should have done instead.
  4. Base my response on where she is. If she doesn’t understand what went wrong, I talk about that so that she understands what was wrong about the situation. If she already knows and is sorry, I talk about how to fix it or move on.
  5. Bring up what she did RIGHT in the situation. Rarely is an event all bad – it’s vital that my geek knows what she did correctly so that she can repeat it!
  6. Make sure she knows how to handle this type of situation in the future. Quite frankly, giving negative feedback is completely useless if there’s no way to draw something positive out of the situation. And the most positive thing is to make sure that it won’t happen the same way next time.
  7. Have a pleasant ending OR come up with action steps. Depending on how my geek assimilates the information, we’ll need to agree on what to do next. Either we move on and talk about pleasant things or we need to come up with next steps (e.g., regular check-ins or how to fix the situation if anything is fixable).

Honestly, I’ve had this blow up in my face once or twice, but trial and error have led me to this overall methodology.  I’d love to hear about what other methods work for you!

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