Dishing out tough love: how to give unfavourable feedback fairly

Written by
Feb 8, 2023
Leadership Communications

So Joe from Accounts is late to work again. By a long way. “Overslept” is the disinterested excuse you receive when probing the issue a little further. You’ve made polite suggestions, perhaps even gone as far as begging, yet still the issue festers without resolution. Yep, it’s time to have ‘the conversation’.

Dishing out negative feedback is one of those tricky tasks that most leaders try to avoid if at all possible. Afterall, how do you essentially tell someone they’re doing a bad job whilst at the same time inspiring them to do it better? Get it wrong, and you run the risk of creating a sullen, dispirited employee whose passion for their craft seeps awayday by day. But get it right, and you can in fact turn an unpleasant situation into a positive learning experience.

The world’s best leaders have mastered the art of firm, yet fruitful feedback, negotiating the tightrope of ego and emotion to deliver tempered, thoughtful critique with solid and tangible outcomes. For others, tough love is something reserved only for extreme situations (if at all), as leaders attempt to be more affable and approachable. 

And whilst this is indeed a noble mission, to avoid criticism entirely is to open yourself up to a world of frustration, as employees are likely to mistake your reticence for weakness -and there’ll always be one or two who will capitalise on your reluctance to foray into a more disciplinarian persona.

So how do you create a positive, supportive working environment and maintain a sense of authority without veering off into totalitarian territory? Here are 5 top tips for negotiating the art of negative feedback:

Don’t bank it

Negative feedback is better received in small doses. Far too often, managers put off the tough talk until the very last second, allowing issues to fester and grow until they require an altogether more explosive encounter. If you want to keep things from getting ugly, tackle the small issues as they happen rather than allowing them to escalate to the point of no return. Not only will this aid in avoiding extreme unpleasantness, but it will also allow your employee to focus their energy on correcting a more manageable problem.

Have a conversation

Never send your negative feedback via email. While many people prefer to hide behind their screens and completely avoid being part of awkward conversations, putting critical feedback into an email is quite possibly the least constructive way to get your message across. Instead, ask your employee if you can have a private word and discuss the matter at hand. This will also give the staff member a chance to ask questions and voice any concerns they may have.

Find the source of the problem

Treating the symptom may work in the short term, but you can only really move forward once the root cause of poor behaviour has been uncovered. While it’s important to highlight the performance areas that have taken a knock, you must also acknowledge that there could be larger factors at play that are having a harmful impact on your employee’s performance. If you’re able to identify and resolve the greater issue, smaller problems are likely to be ironed out in the process.

Ask questions that promptself-evaluation

When confronting an employee with a problem, you may have already put some thought into how the issue can be resolved. But instead of placing all of your ideas on the table from the get-go, rather ask your employee how they think the job could have been done better. Giving your team members the opportunity to be part of the solution enables them to feel more connected to the business, which is likely to gain greater buy-in and keep them motivated to improve their performance.

Remember that this is a two-way street

Negative feedback can truly improve one’s performance when delivered correctly, and it’s important to remember that this goes for both managers and employees. If you’re open to dishing out negative feedback, you need to be willing to accept any feedback that your staff may have about your behaviour and leadership as well. Honest employee feedback is rare and highly valuable, and this is the perfect time to gauge how your employees really feel about you and their work environment as a whole.


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