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Everything you need to know about giving negative feedback

An essential skill that all managers must master is the ability to give tough feedback. This can be especially challenging when you have to communicate bad news to the employees who work for you.

Tough may also describe the way that you may think you need to be when giving negative feedback: firm, resolute, and unyielding. And the discomfort you may experience when you have to criticize an employee.

All of these factors can make it challenging to provide negative feedback to your employees. However, here is some experience-based advice that you can use the next time you need to criticize an employee's work.

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  1. Never feed someone a sandwich. Don't bookend your critique with compliments. It sounds insincere and risks diluting your message. Instead, separate your negative comments from your praise, and don't hedge.

  2. Schedule regular check-ins with your direct reports, so that giving negative and positive feedback becomes a normal part of the weekly routine.

  3. Don't combine critical feedback with discussions of pay and promotion, as often occurs during the year-end evaluation. This creates a toxic cocktail of emotions even the most mellow employee will have trouble managing. Instead, make these separate conversations.

  4. Discuss performance issues publicly if needed. The adage "praise in public, criticize in private" is an old management mantra. But sometimes, you have to be critical in public. Holding people accountable sometimes means discussing performance issues with the group, even if it feels uncomfortable.

  5. Ask permission. This may sound odd, especially if you are the boss, but you can tip people off that a critique is coming (and make them more receptive to hearing it) if you start the conversation by saying, "Can I give you some feedback?"

  6. Avoid jumping to conclusions or seeming like a bully by sticking to the facts. For instance, if an employee is leaving early and showing up late, he or she could be having a family emergency or a health issue. Simply state the behavior you have observed and let him or her explain what is going on. Try framing your critique in terms of the positive result you want to achieve, rather than as what is wrong with the person.

  7. Make it about the impact the employee could achieve by working differently. Ask "What are your goals?" Be specific about the new behavior you would like to see. If you are delivering some particularly hard-to-hear news, consider giving the person the rest of the afternoon off. Studies have shown that top performers are especially vulnerable to major setbacks. Show compassion not by softening the blow with false praise, but by giving bad news straight and then offering some breathing room.

  8. Recognize that everyone wants corrective feedback – yes, even millennials and experienced workers. Consulting firm Zenger Folkman found that while managers dislike giving critical feedback, all employees value hearing it and often find it even more useful than praise.

There is one important caveat here, however, and that's the ideal praise-to-criticism ratio. While we may not be willing to admit it to ourselves, we do need to hear praise. And studies of the most effective teams have shown that the ideal ratio is about five compliments to every criticism. So do shower your team with kudos – just don't do it at the same time you're critiquing them. And when you do offer plaudits, praise effort not ability. Focusing your praise on behaviors means that when you have to deliver corrective feedback, people are more likely to take it in the same vein rather than as a personal attack.

Adapted from Everything You Need to Know About Giving Negative Feedback, Harvard Business Review, June 2014.

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