LEADERSHIP / SEP. 09, 2014
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How You Can Deliver Negative Feedback

We can all accept that feedback is essential to the functioning of any organisation, but also for the improvement in each of us as individuals.  I’ve written before about the incredible boost that positive feedback can give to our self-esteem and general sense of wellbeing.  Indeed, research has shown that we often like compliments a lot more than we do any other kind of remuneration at work.  That side of things generally isn’t a problem (although we could always improve!).

The thing is, we also need to give and receive negative feedback.  None of us is perfect, so it’s inevitable that we’ll do things wrong at times, and our learning is reliant upon hearing when we are wrong and improving ourselves based upon the feedback we receive.

Why giving (and receiving) negative feedback is so hard

Yet this is arguably one of the hardest things we can do at work.  Research from Rutger University’s Daniel Goleman reveals that receiving negative feedback often triggers both anxiety and negative emotions within us.  These emotions can often in turn cause us to shut down emotionally, thus blocking the way for improvement and development as a result of the feedback, which isn’t what we want.

Of course, giving negative feedback is often no easier, especially when that feedback is to be given to someone more senior to us.  It has prompted such flawed approaches as the ’praise sandwich’, whereby negative feedback is sandwiched in the middle of two bits of praise.

How to deliver negative feedback in a better way

Goleman suggests that a much better approach is to frame the conversation you have with your colleague in terms of their dreams instead.  His idea is based upon neurology, and suggests that the best way to deliver improvements in performance is to frame your conversation in terms of positive goals and dreams.  This type of conversation is more likely to open up the individual to new possibilities, such as improving themselves.

He goes on to suggest that this type of discussion triggers the same parts of the brain that are triggered by much more positive feedback, with dopamine flooding the brain and giving us positive thoughts and feelings, despite receiving negative feedback.

How your advice can go wrong

It’s a fascinating theory, and one shared by author David Rock, who shared his views in his book Quiet Leadership.  The book detailed several ways that Rock believes advice can often go astray:

  1. It’s autobiographical and often therefore based upon the experiences of us, the giver, rather than the recipient themselves.
  2. It’s misdirected and often dwells on the wrong problem altogether.  ”The dilemma that people first put forward,” Rock says, “is almost always not their main issue” because if they “were clear about the central challenge… they probably would have solved it anyway.”
  3. It’s rejected in favour of their own opinion.  Rock recommends, “if you have the exact idea that someone needs to hear, definitely don’t tell them,” as they will probably reject your advice and end up no better off.

Of course, so much of the success of delivering negative feedback rests with the recipient.  If you have developed a culture whereby employees want feedback as they regard it as an opportunity to grow and get better, then you are in luck.  If feedback is regarded as an attack however, then it’s likely to be a real struggle.

How do you deliver negative feedback to a colleague?  How do you react when you receive it yourself?

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