Integrity

Trust, Service

& Accountability

Behaving Ethically

Giving and Receiving Negative Feedback

Negative feedback consists of a two-way conversation involving criticism or concerns about work performance or results.  Effective negative feedback discusses what behaviour and outcomes are expected, and develops constructive suggestions about how to improve, by when and what support is needed (if any) to help produce the desired results.

Successful negative feedback requires an understanding of the difference between the message (of what went wrong and what needs to be done) and the medium (who is giving the feedback, and where and how).  This applies particularly when a person in a position of power in the agency is giving negative feedback to an employee over whom they exercise power.  Even though the message itself may be clear, how the feedback is given may create barriers to understanding and action.  That is, the person giving the negative feedback should take actions to ensure the message (the problem and the required future actions) is clearly communicated without the listener being intimidated, humiliated or embarrassed by the medium (the organisational status of the speaker, the place of the meeting, the arrangement of the seating, the tone of the conversation, and so on).

Other types of criticism, which are typically ineffective and should be avoided, are:

  • Providing criticism only without discussing the changes needed to improve work performance and/or service.  Focussing only on undesired behaviours is rarely a learning experience, comes across as a punishment, can be harmful to employees and generally does not work
  • Giving implied or explicit threats about what could happen if the feedback is not acted upon.

There will always be occasions where, because of time constraints or other conditions, it may be necessary to give negative feedback in a unilateral way.  However unilateral negative feedback will not be effective if it becomes the predominant way that you communicate with others.

Giving negative feedback at work

To give negative feedback in ways that encourages understanding and learning, the Resolution Centre ( www.resolutioncentre.com.au/articles/difficult_conversation.html) and others recommend:

  • Consult the person on how, when and where it would be best to provide the feedback.  Ask if it’s a good time.  If it is not, organise with the person a mutually agreed another time and place
  • Provide the context.  Don’t dive right into the feedback – give the person a chance to brace for potentially embarrassing feedback.  Tell the person you need to provide feedback that is difficult to share.  If you’re uncomfortable with your role in the conversation, you might say that, too
  • Link the feedback to the work results that need to be delivered.  For example, “I am talking with you because there is an issue you need to address if our team/agency/service delivery is to improve”
  • Provide straightforward and simple feedback.
  • Tell the person what the positive impact will be for the team/agency/service delivery if they change their behaviour
  • Offer a break in proceedings, if they are emotionally distressed or need time to think about what you have said.  Remember, your task is to get the required outcome, and this is more likely to be achieved if you have empathy and understanding for how the other person is reacting.  This is particularly important if the person receiving the negative feedback becomes upset
  • If others have complained to you about the person’s behaviour, do not mention that others have complained.  This heightens the embarrassment and can undermine constructive discussion
  • Strive to reach agreement about what you and the person will do to address the problem work behaviour(s).  Set a time frame to review progress
  • Documentation:  If the negative feedback is of a serious nature, then write a brief, factual, written summary of the discussion: who was involved, when and where it took place, what the discussion covered in general terms, and what specific actions were agreed.  Make two copies of this record of the meeting and sign both.  Give one copy to the receiver of the feedback for their records, and ask them to sign your copy to acknowledge they have received your summary of the meeting.  If they disagree with any facts of the brief written summary, they may add their comments to your summary before they sign your copy. 

Receiving negative feedback at work

To accept negative feedback in ways that encourages understanding and learning:

  • Courage: Recognise the courage it took your colleague to give you the feedback.  Thank them for raising the matter with you
  • Listen: Listen without interrupting and without blaming your colleague for raising the issues.  Look directly at the person.  If you hear something you don’t agree with, indicate that you have heard them (for example, say “OK”) but wait to discuss it when they have finished talking.  Breathing deeply may help keep you stay focused
  • Understanding: Summarise your understanding of the issues that were raised with you to ensure you have understood them accurately and fully.  This may involve seeking clarification from the feedback giver in a calm way
  • Ownership: If there is some truth to the criticism, take ownership of your behaviour.  If you feel the criticism is unfair, say so – but avoid disputing the criticism itself
  • Ask questions or ask for specific examples: This will help clarify exactly what they say you did, but don’t make excuses or dispute the statements at this time
  • Suggestions: Ask for specific suggestions for how the issues could be addressed, and what specific behaviours (if any) you could deliver
  • Responding:
    • If you feel emotionally able to discuss the issues calmly, state your thoughts in a non-accusatory manner
    • If you are too upset, ask for a break or if you can continue the discussion in a day or so.  Write down all you remember of the feedback, using the feedback giver’s exact words where possible.  After a day, re-read your notes.  Ignore any inflammatory phrases and focus on the basic message
  • Learning: Remember that learning from negative feedback without becoming antagonistic will reinforce the view that you are a responsible employee who is willing and able to modify your behaviour to improve yourself, benefit the workplace and/or improve service delivery
  • Documentation: It is standard practice for a person giving formal, negative feedback to provide the receiver of the feedback with a written summary of the discussion and the conclusions that were reached.  If this does not occur, write a brief, factual, written summary of the discussion: who was involved, when and where it took place, what the discussion covered in general terms, and what specific actions were agreed.  Make two copies of this record of the meeting and sign both.  Give one copy to the provider of the feedback for their records, and ask them to sign your copy to acknowledge they have received your summary of the meeting.  If they disagree with any facts of the brief written summary, they may add their comments to your summary before they sign your copy.