How to give negative feedback

There will likely be times in your professional life when you need to give negative feedback, whether to a peer, an employee, or a service provider. Here are our tips on providing this negative feedback constructively without causing too much bad feeling or conflict. (Of course, this advice could also be applied to your personal life.)

Avoid the feedback sandwich

The general consensus amongst professional and business advisors is not to use the ‘feedback sandwich.’ This outdated piece of advice states you should give negative feedback ‘sandwiched’ between two pieces of positive feedback, to soften the blow. Although this might sound like a good idea, the reality is that it can give someone a false sense of how they’re doing.

Instead, you should provide constructive feedback in order to allow them to learn and improve.

Constructive feedback

This consists of a critique followed by a solution. However, it’s not as simple as that. People often feel attacked and become defensive when criticised, so giving constructive feedback effectively minimises this reaction.

It’s all about how you say it, whether it be your tone of voice or the words you use. Here are a few techniques you can try.

Focus on the situation, not the person

Instead of saying, “You did this wrong,” say, “I feel like the situation needed more of this – could you try that for next time?” For example, don’t say, “Your presentation was really boring,” say something like, “I feel like some of the points could be a bit more concise, as the audience have a lot of information to take in.”

Be specific

Receiving vague feedback can be frustrating for the person. Instead, giving something specific to focus on will help the person understand and accept the feedback as they have something actionable they can work on to improve. This approach will also reduce the perception that you’re criticising them, instead focusing on one small aspect of their behaviour that can be more easily fixed. For instance, instead of saying, “I don’t like the report you’ve created,” say something like “Great effort on the report; if you could just make these few specific changes, it will be ready to go.”

Make your feedback realistic and actionable

There’s no point in giving someone a suggestion if it’s not something they can control. Feedback is meant to help someone improve, not assassinate their character. So, for example, if a colleague is preparing a pitch to a prospective client and asks for your feedback, don’t tell them that their voice sounds funny, as this will likely make them feel bad. Instead, suggest that they slow down a bit to make the words sound clearer.

Be positive and focus on the future

The best way to give constructive criticism is to keep the conversation as positive as possible. Don’t dwell too long on what the person has done wrong, but emphasise that you believe they can improve next time and give them specific ways to do it.