How to give negative feedback without demoralising your team

By Dominic Ashley-Timms and Laura Ashley-Timms, below, CEO and COO of performance consultancy Notion

We’ve all been on the receiving end of feedback that left us scratching our heads, wondering if it was meant to help or just bring us down, wondering how any manager could be quite so inept at offering us helpful feedback we might respond to. It shouldn’t come as any surprise then that most of us would rather pull out our own teeth than suffer the squirming discomfort of giving feedback to a member of our team—in today’s world, we fear saying the wrong or of causing offence—better surely to avoid that whole emotional rollercoaster and leave well alone—it’ll come good somehow. With these beliefs about feedback, who can blame us for wanting to sidestep such discomfort, right? But giving feedback doesn’t have to be daunting at all.

Whilst we may wish to resist giving it, feedback – both the positive and the constructive kind – is a fundamental responsibility of anyone in a management role. It’s how we support our team members on their journey toward growth and development. When managers get the hang of delivering feedback, they help their staff to level up, encouraging their continuous performance improvement.

Now, you might be wondering, how can leaders offer feedback without leaving their teams demoralised and disheartened? It’s a question that often perplexes even the most seasoned leaders.

  1. Practice Purposeful Inquiry

Imagine an employee has completed a task that could’ve been handled more efficiently, or they made a decision that didn’t quite hit the mark. It’s tempting to swoop in and fix things for them, telling them what to do or sorting out the situation. But this command-and-control approach can backfire. It not only deflates the employee’s confidence by implying they can’t improve, but it also denies them the chance to learn from their mistakes.

A better way is to adopt an enquiry-led approach, learning how to ask insightful and powerful questions that encourage self-reflection at the point where that would be most helpful to someone’s thinking. Instead of throwing why? questions like “Why did you do that?” or “Why did this happen?” at them, try using what? questions. For instance, ask, “What are the reasons behind this outcome?” or “What could have gone better?” “What” questions remove the personal sting and promote self-reflection without triggering defensiveness.

By doing this, you shift the dynamic from being the all-knowing manager to a supportive enabler. Employees will feel that feedback isn’t about putting them down but lifting them up, and this shift is not only beneficial for their growth but also for building a harmonious team atmosphere.

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2. Look for opportunities to give appreciative feedback

In many workplaces, people can feel undervalued, and it’s up to us, as leaders and managers, to make a difference. Creating a culture of developmental and appreciative feedback can make people look forward to coming to work, leading to increased job satisfaction and overall productivity. And when people are engaged and committed, collaboration and contributions soar. Instead of constantly looking out for the things that are going wrong or the behaviours that we want our team members to fix, practise developing your awareness about what is going well around you, perhaps actively searching for those moments when someone has excelled in a particular behaviour or skill. Use these opportunities to highlight what went well.

For example, you could say, “Helen, I just wanted to say that I thought the way you boiled that whole presentation down to just the key decisions we needed to make really helped us move forward today. Thank you.” Giving appreciative feedback like this not only boosts your feedback skills but also sharpens your awareness of the positive aspects around you.

Appreciative feedback reinforces good behaviour. It helps people to understand which behaviours and actions are making a difference and encourages them to build upon those strengths. This, in turn, nurtures new habits and accelerates improvements.

Remember, when giving appreciative feedback:

  • Give the feedback as soon as you spot it
  • Be sincere and specific
  • Focus praise on the action or behaviour (objective) rather than the individual themself (subjective)
  • Link the actions to the positive result that you noticed: “What I liked about what you did was… and this was the impact that I noticed…”

Appreciative feedback has a magical effect; it makes people feel noticed and valued. When people feel good about their contributions, their overall attitude can change in a heartbeat. It’s simple human nature. Giving sincere appreciative feedback also builds trust that you are wanting the individual to develop so paves the way to them being more open to your carefully judged and well-intentioned developmental feedback when you need to give it.

As leaders and managers we have the power to create an environment where everyone can flourish and thrive, fostering a positive and productive work environment. So, embrace the art of feedback and watch your team’s potential skyrocket!

Dominic Ashley-Timms and Laura Ashley-Timms are the CEO and COO of performance consultancy Notion. They are the co-creators of the multi-award-winning STAR® Manager online development programme being adopted by managers in 40 countries and are also the co-authors of new management bestseller The Answer is a Question


SME Publications/ SME XPO 2024