Negative feedback : learn how to give it to foster positive change - Ginette Gagnon

Negative feedback : learn how to give it to foster positive change

As a leader, you know that to give negative feedback is sometimes essential.

But it does not mean that it is an easy nor comfortable task to perform.

You worry about how your employee will react, and how well you will be able to manage the emotions that arise. You are concerned that if the discussion does not go well, it may do more harm than if you had ignored the situation. And if retaining this employee is a priority, you may agonize as to how to proceed and limit your risks.

Giving negative feedback is indeed one of the toughest tasks that you must harness as a leader. And giving it in such a way that it fosters positive change can be pure art.

It takes courage, and the capacity to manage your own emotions. But even then, it does not suffice. You need to understand how to stimulate positive change while having a tough conversation.

So let me share key insights with you.

It Starts with an Honest Assessment

Some say that you should give feedback immediately, as soon as the problem arises. 

While you may not want to wait for too long, reacting on the spot is often not the best time nor place to have a difficult conversation. Often times, a negative feedback requires to take a step back and reflect on the best course of action.

Take a deep breath, make sure that your mind is clear and that your emotions are not driving you.

Now, here are key questions to ask yourself:

  • Does the situation truly need to be addressed?  Just because you don’t like something, it does not mean that it needs to be addressed.

However, if it must be, then reflect on:

  • Who is the most legitimate person to give this feedback? Is it you or someone else in the organization?
  • When is the best time to hold this conversation? Now or later?
  • Where is the best place? Here or elsewhere?
  • What is your real intent? What outcome are you aiming for?

Make Sure the Conversation Is Taken Seriously

Sometimes, you may want to soften the blow. But when comments are too gentle and lack precision, the employee may not even realize that there is a problem to fix.

Has it ever happened to you?

There’s no problem about being gentle and empathetic. However, it is essential that the person understand that a serious conversation is about to happen.

You may want to start with something like:

“I have feedback I would like to give you. Can we meet?” or “I would like to react to what happened. Can we talk?”

Focus on the Future, Not the Past

One of the most difficult but not uncommon situation is when you give feedback to someone, while you did not witness what happened. It is then very hard for you to debate with your employee on what exactly was said or done.

And even if you were a witness, this sort of debate can be endless. Your employee will likely be defensive and try to justify his behaviour, while you have a different perception of the situation.

Not helpful.

Instead, avoid dwelling on what happened. It only inflames negativity.

State the facts, and rapidly focus on the benefits of improving the situation.

Choose to inspire change instead of wasting energy in a useless debate.

I remember the story of Gabriel. He has to deal with Peter, an employee who was disrespectful to another colleague. Peter’s first reaction to Gabriel’s feedback was that he was not that disrespectful and, for that matter, the other person deserved it. Instead of debating on who said what, Gabriel focused Peter’s attention on the benefits of fixing the problem.

“Whatever happened, you will agree with me that there is a situation to be dealt with. The animosity between you two has a negative impact on the project and on our performance. If you could fix this, imagine how pleasant and efficient teamwork would be.”

Focus the attention on why a positive change is essential, as opposed to arguing about the problem.

Let the Employee Own his Action Plan

The next step is to invite your employee to reflect on what he can do to improve the situation (instead of finding excuses).

Don’t tell the other person what to do. Instead, ask open questions, and let him determine what would be the best course of action going forward.

Ask questions such as:

  • What can you do about the situation?
  • How will you proceed?
  • When?

Indeed, it is much more powerful to let the employee come up with his own solution, that aligns with his strengths and personal preferences, then to impose a series of actions.

But if he is too emotional about the conversation, offer him to take a break and reflect. Agree as to when he will get back to you to further discuss.

Check How the Person Feels About the Whole Conversation

Give the person a chance to express how he feels about the whole discussion. Show empathy and encourage him to look at this as an opportunity to learn and improve. Tell him that you believe in him and his ability to overcome this challenge.

Agree on When to Follow Up

Whatever happens, make sure that you don’t end the conversation without agreeing on the next steps. Determine when the person should get back to you with an action plan, or when you will both meet again to review progress.

However, the Best Feedback Process Is Useless Without a Proper Foundation

Even if you handle the negative feedback well, it will not lead to positive changes unless there are trust and credibility between you and your employee.

If your employee does not trust you, then he will likely resist anything you say, and will probably not engage great efforts nor energy to correct the situation.

If your employee trusts that you have good intentions, but finds that you are not credible, then again, he will probably dismiss the feedback altogether.

You need a trusting relationship to create a safe space for you two to have an honest and tough conversation. Only then, may your employee be open to your negative feedback.

You want to learn more about TRUST? Then, read this: Want exceptional team performance? Then make this your top priority

Nurture a culture of excellence


​Imagine that, to foster excellence, you make it a practice to give feedback regularly.

You give positive feedback to help your employees develop a clear understanding of what your expectations are and to reinforce excellence. And with this level of positive attention, you also nurture trusting relationships around you.

So when you have negative feedback to give, you don’t panic. You’ve already created a safe space to handle difficult conversations. You can now focus on the benefits of changing, as opposed to arguing about the problem.

As a result, your employees are deeply listening to you, and are motivated to continuously improve.

Your team is aiming for excellence.

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