How to give tough feedback to an employee

By Judith S. Blanton, Ph.D.

  Giving tough feedback is one of the most hated jobs for managers.  Telling an employee that his or her performance is poor can be almost as uncomfortable for the manager as it is for the employee.  We avoid, procrastinate, sugar coat, hint, equivocate, or beat about the bush.  Another, too common, approach is to explode with frustration or anger or be overly blunt.  So, how can you give bad news (what psychologists call negative feedback) in a way that it can be “heard” and, hopefully, lead to behavioral change? Feedback works better when you think of it, not as “bad news” but as “useful information.”  The goal is to change behavior and feedback provides the information to help make the behavioral change.  Feedback has two parts – the emotional aspect and the cognitive (informational) aspect.   Too often the focus is on the emotional side.  The person “hears” that you are unhappy, that he is in trouble or even that he is a terrible person.  The feelings are so loud that they drowned out the informational part of the feedback.  A few days (or even hours) after a highly critical performance review, employees are often unable to recall exactly what they did that was wrong or what they need to do to remedy the situation, only that their manager is “angry and doesn’t like me”.  If the goal is actually to change behavior rather than just to vent feelings, the focus needs to be on the informational side.  What exactly happened?  What was the problem? What can be done to remedy the situation?  What can keep this from happening again?    How can you minimize the emotional aspect and emphasize the informational part of feedback? Don’t give the feedback when you are upset, frustrated or angry.  Calm down first.  When you are leaking strong negative feelings, it is likely that all that the recipient of the feedback will attend to are your feelings and the emotions that your upset produces in them.   Wait until you are cool enough to focus on the information that needs to be given.  However, waiting until you are calm does not mean procrastinating.  Feedback needs to be given as quickly as possible, while the situation is fresh.  A good rule of    thumb is to give positive feedback ASAP (as soon as possible) but when you are upset, and the feedback is negative, give it “as soon as ready” (ASAR).  You are ready when you have cooled off and have thought about what you want to say.   You are less likely to be upset if you have kept up with your concerns about the employee’s performance before it became a major problem.  Avoid “stockpiling” or “gunnysacking” your concerns and then dumping them all at once.  
It is easier for the recipient to handle smaller things as they come up than deal with an avalanche of pent up complaints.   Give feedback often.  If feedback is given only once or twice a year, it is a much bigger deal and much more emotionally charged.  One of the best ways to be sure that people attend to negative feedback is to have it be imbedded in ongoing, routine feedback that includes positive feedback as well.  One of the best management techniques is to “catch them doing something right” and commenting on it.   Commenting on good behavior gives solid information about what they should be doing. 
Often bad behavior is a result of not knowing what good looks like.  Use every opportunity to reinforce positive behavior.  Ideally, strive for more positive feedback interactions than negative ones.  Some researchers have suggested at least four positive to one negative interaction.  If the only interactions you have are those where the person is criticized or scolded, the relationship is likely to be strained and unpleasant for both the employee and manager. When you are ready (ASAR), focus on the issue, not the personality of the person. Avoid such things as “Why can’t you (with voice that implies that the person is a stupid fool) meet deadlines” or “Why are you always getting things in late?”   Rather, focus on the situation. For example, you might say “Deadlines are not being met.  This needs to change right now. What needs to happen to fix this?”  It is particularly effective to ask questions that drive self-reflection.  “How could this have been done better?”  “What did we learn from this?”  “How can we keep this from ever happening again?”  Asking questions in a way that solicits self-reflection and elicits the employee’s ideas of what new behavior is needed is much more likely to lead to change than just telling the employee what to do. Managers need to be very careful not to interpret the problem behavior by saying such things as “I know you don’t like doing X but….” or “You are upset because….”  Remember that you cannot read minds and it is condescending and presumptuous to assume you can.  Furthermore, making an inference about an employee’s thinking or motives could lead the conversation astray by getting off the topic to argue about the accuracy of your assumption.  It is better to focus on the behavior.  The more specific, the better.  What was the actual problem or event?  Why was it a problem?  What needs to be done to correct the problem and/or keep it from happening again?   The conversation needs to move beyond just detailing what is wrong but clarifying what “good” looks like and what new behavior is needed.  Often the employee understands that what he or she is doing is not working but lacks the knowledge or skills to do something else.  Just telling an employee that his “people skills are weak” does not give information about what specific behavior needs to change.  Does he need to make better eye contact and greet the customer when the customer walks in the store?  Does she need be more responsive when fellow-employees ask her for a document rather than ignore them or respond negatively? Research suggests that even positive feedback is more appreciated and more effective in reinforcing behavior when it is specific.  Rather than saying “You are doing a great job!”, it is more effective to say “You did a great job yesterday when you…..!” Coaching for positive behavior is just as (or even more) important as giving feedback about negative behavior. As we noted before, the actual goal is not how to give bad news. It is to give useful information in order to improve performance.  Certainly, sometimes that new information can be tough for employees to receive.  However, if employees see you as genuinely concerned about helping them become successful, they are more likely to “hear” and to integrate the feedback.  It is no longer merely bad news but a path to become more successful.