The ups and downs of giving ‘negative’ feedback

As important as it is to create a culture of feedback in an organisation, the problem of how difficult it can be to receive feedback still exists.

Unfortunately, the tendency is to think of feedback as a negative thing – telling people they have done something wrong, or that something needs to be improved. Feedback is also a positive process, of encouragement and reinforcement. Regardless of which side of the fence you sit – the business of feedback can be a minefield.

Giving constructive (‘negative’) feedback

It’s a part of working life – boundaries get crossed, people make mistakes and sometimes people are just inadvertently communicating inappropriately and making life hard for you or others on the team. This is where you need to give feedback. It’s tough, because most just want to ‘live and let live’. The spectre of conflict that could result from negative feedback makes us scared of saying what is on our minds. It is this fear that drives so much angst in the office and it is the main driver of bad office cultures.

Negative feedback, from telling someone they talk a little too loudly on the phone right through to telling someone their performance is so bad that their job is in danger, requires a level of skill that can only be acquired through practise. The longer the habit of not giving feedback develops, the more angst and discontent will develop in the office. It is essential that you overcome all feedback fears and tell people when they are doing the wrong thing.

Sometimes you get it wrong when giving negative feedback

Part of the fear of giving negative feedback is that someone will turn around and bite your head off. This certainly does happen, especially when you’re dealing with someone who is highly stressed (or highly aggressive). And sometimes your negative feedback isn’t justified because you only have part of the story. If you don’t give the feedback, then you remain angry and unaware of the full situation. If you do give the feedback, and seek to find out their point of view, then you may discover a bigger picture, reduce your own frustration and perhaps even be able to help someone.

But people get really defensive!

Yes, it’s true; some people will not take negative criticism at all well. They defend themselves by attacking you. This usually makes the entire situation feel worse than when you were harbouring the discontent all by yourself. Some people even start the attack simply anticipating your feedback!

Defensive attacks are never right at work. Exploring issues by addressing them directly is a great habit. A culture of honesty will always include misunderstandings along the way – it’s the long-term view that is important here. If feedback is intermittent (or always negative and never positive) then the chance of a negative reaction is a lot higher.

Make it a habit to give regular feedback and your team will soon realise that it’s not an insult or an attack – it’s just your contribution to an open and honest environment with a focus on continuous improvement.

It’s hard to give negative feedback to people who are really nice

Recently, a few people have told me that it’s really tough to give negative feedback to really nice people. You would expect the opposite, given that the fear of negative retaliation is a common block for giving feedback, but it seems that we still see negative feedback as something hurtful.

We especially don’t want to deliver this ‘hurt’ to someone who is nice. Even more so if they’re hard-working. It may sound ridiculous but feedback needs to be seen as a gift. You are opening someone’s eyes to how they are perceived. They might not like the news, it might make them uncomfortable (especially if it is feedback about personal hygiene, for example) but it is a way of helping them.

When you look at feedback this way it begins to take an entirely different shape. And isn’t it better to discuss these things directly than add to the gossip and talking behind someone’s back?

 Eve Ash, psychologist and CEO of Seven Dimensions, has produced over 500 business films, including some hilarious comedy films ( and is a widely acclaimed public speaker ( 




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