“We need to talk.”
Those words strike fear into the heart of every employee. The minute we sense that our flaws are about to be pointed out, a deluge of worries fills our mind: Am I doing something wrong? Will I lose my job?
And being on the other end of that conversation isn’t any easier. How many times have you tiptoed around a chronic problem, hoping that by ignoring it, it will magically go away?
So, we do need to talk: About how to give negative feedback in the workplace, and why it’s so important to master this vital-yet-awkward skill.
Feedback: Everyone Wants It, No One Wants To Give It
Studies have shown that employees want feedback. This may be especially true for new members of a team who are eager to ensure they’re doing a good job. This particular type of feedback seeking, a Northwestern University research paper proposes, is a way to reduce uncertainty about:
- If our behaviors are helping us to achieve goals
- How our performance will be evaluated
In a survey by leadership development consultancy Zenger/Folkman, more respondents said they prefer receiving corrective feedback than praise. Additionally, 72% of them said that their performance would get better if their managers would give them corrective feedback.
Though employees crave feedback, the paradox is that supervisors are reluctant to give it. And when they finally get around to doing it, they often skew the feedback to sound better than it is for low performers.
By avoiding feedback, particularly the negative kind, we’re not doing anyone any favors. Constructive criticism in the workplace is essential to our professional development.
So how can we make negative feedback more palatable? By turning to food.
3 Feedback Flavors (As Told By Food Analogies)
We’ve established that giving and receiving negative feedback is important. So when it comes to delivering it, what’s the best way to do it? Below are three feedback delivery methods presented in a relatable, albeit unexpected, form: food analogies.
The Compliment Sandwich
The Compliment Sandwich, also known as the Praise Sandwich or Sandwich Method, is a real term and is the most recommended approach to giving criticism. As its name implies, you “sandwich” your negative feedback between two slices of positive feedback. The idea here is that by blunting the edge of your criticism with praise, your overall feedback will be better received.
- Because it starts and ends with praise, it can make receiving criticism much more palatable.
- It ends on a good note, so the receiver of the feedback might not feel as bad.
- It’s overused, so people have come to expect it.
- Because it ends with positive feedback, the negative feedback might be forgotten.
Fittingly, the Compliment Sandwich has gotten its fair share of criticism. In a LinkedIn post, author Adam Grant exhorts his colleagues to stop serving the feedback sandwich, saying that it makes compliments sound insincere. HR expert Susan Heathfield writes that the best way to deliver negative feedback is “to provide straightforward, to the point, descriptive communication with examples about what the employee needs to improve.”
The Feedback Pizza (Compliment - Criticism)
So if the Compliment Sandwich is long past its expiration date, here are two new alternatives: First up is the tasty Feedback Pizza, where you start with that nice, cheese-loaded compliment, and end with the insipid, but necessary, criticism crust (seriously, does anyone actually like the crust?).
- Because it starts with praise, it can make receiving criticism much more palatable.
- It leaves the emphasis on the criticism, which is probably the most important part of your feedback.
- Because it ends with the criticism, the receiver might feel bad.
The Criticism Cough Syrup (Straight Criticism)
And finally, we come to the Criticism Cough Syrup. This form of feedback delivery is as straightforward as it gets: criticism only, no sweetening with compliments!
- It’s direct, and because praise doesn’t get mixed in, there’s no chance of your message getting muddled.
- It can come across as harsh, and it may hurt the receiver’s feelings.
Though the Criticism Cough Syrup tastes bad going down, you know it’ll help in the long-run.
How To Give Negative Feedback In A Constructive Way
Regardless of if you opt for the Compliment Sandwich or force feed the Criticism Cough Syrup, there are proven ways to make sure the negative feedback goes down smoothly. Let’s get down to the nitty-gritty with five actionable steps (or ingredients, if you're still hungry) for giving negative feedback in a constructive way—backed by science, of course.
1. Create an environment of psychological safety.
Without trust, constructive criticism cannot exist. Think about it: Having your limitations pointed out by a team member is a very vulnerable place to be. If you don’t trust that they are trying to help you, you’re likely to get defensive.
So how do you prevent defensiveness and promote improvement? By creating psychological safety, a construct first introduced by Harvard professor Amy Edmondson. You’ll know your workplace has psychological safety when, according to a Google study, you can answer “yes” to this question: “Can we take risks on this team without feeling insecure or embarrassed?”
In Edmondson’s TEDx Talk, she suggests three ways to promote psychological safety in your workplace:
- Frame the work as a learning problem, not an execution problem. Be open with your team about the uncertainty ahead and the teamwork needed to confront it.
- Acknowledge your fallibility. Edmondson suggests saying something like, “I may miss something. I need to hear from you.”
- Model curiosity. By asking a lot of questions, you show your team that you want their voices to be heard.
These three things, Edmondson says, create an environment where people feel encouraged to speak up without fear of retaliation or punishment.
Additionally, researchers from Berkeley and the University of Maryland suggest that for negative feedback to be effective, the receiver must trust that the deliverer:
- Has enough knowledge to evaluate performance and give effective feedback
- Is honest and has integrity
- Has their best interests at heart
This seems to support research led by Harvard doctoral student Paul Green that found that negative feedback doesn’t work—unless it’s given in the context of an overall positive relationship where the receiver feels valued by the company.
2. Don’t do all the talking—listen, too.
Negative feedback is a two-way street. Don’t do all the talking; allow the receiver of the feedback to share how they feel and ask questions. A study by Zenger/Folkman found that the more employees felt their managers listened to them, the better they perceived their managers’ ability to give honest feedback.
To make sure the receiver of the negative feedback feels listened to, try asking things like:
- What are your thoughts on this?
- Do you have any questions about what we just talked about?
- Is there anything I could do better to help you improve?
- How can I help?
By showing that you’re willing to hear them out and offer support, you create that environment of psychological safety because you’re presenting yourself as a partner, rather than an accuser.
3. Be specific.
“It’s not really what we’re looking for.” How helpful would feedback like that be? If a manager said that to you regarding a project, would you know how to turn it around?
When giving negative feedback, it’s important to be specific about what you don’t like, how it could be better, and what you’d like to see in the future. Florida State University professor Valerie Shute reviewed the literature and points to a host of studies that indicate feedback tends to be more effective when it is more specific.
Simply telling someone they’re doing something wrong isn’t helpful. Telling them the steps they could take to do better, however, makes your feedback more actionable.
4. Do it at the appropriate time.
There are two important questions to ask yourself when trying to decide if it’s the right time to give someone negative feedback:
- Is it timely? Research has shown that feedback can be more effective when you deliver it close to the event you want to critique. For example, University of Magdeburg and Saarland University researchers found that delayed feedback was less effective on student task requirements that were very demanding. So try to give feedback directly after a certain meeting or project so that it’s still salient in the receiver’s mind.
- Did we make arrangements in advance? Dropping negative feedback out of the blue on a teammate isn’t a good idea. This study involving medical school trainees and their supervisors found that making arrangements for set times of feedback is an important step in workplace-based assessment. So if you have some constructive criticism to deliver, give your teammate a heads-up. Say something like, “When’s a good time this week to talk about [insert project]? I have some thoughts on it that I’d like to share with you.”
5. Give them time and opportunity to correct course.
Finally, when it comes to giving negative feedback in the workplace, make sure to give the receiver enough time and opportunity to improve. For example, it would be unfair to smooth over any rough patches during quarterly performance reviews and only tell an employee what they could’ve done better after you’ve decided to fire them.
As Berkeley and University of Maryland researchers point out in their review of feedback research, “refusing to see that one is not doing well can cause much more pain in the long run than acknowledging the problem and fixing it.”
So be sure to let the receiver of the constructive criticism know how much time you’ll give them to work on the problem and what you’re hoping to see. You can end the meeting with something like, “I’ll check in on this with you in two weeks.” That way, they know you’re giving them a chance to turn things around.
Be A Better Feedback Delivery Person
Based on the research, it sounds like it may be time to take the Compliment Sandwich off the table. If we go by what Green said about negative feedback being effective only when given along with an affirmation of the employee’s value, then it seems the Feedback Pizza, where you deliver positive feedback followed by negative feedback, may work well.
But giving negative feedback can’t be overly simplified into food analogies (as much as I tried). We need to look at the research and glean tactics from it to make sure we do it in an effective way. Whether you opt for the Feedback Pizza or the Criticism Cough Syrup, as long as your critique is given in the context of a trusting relationship, it has a good chance of helping someone. When you give negative feedback, be sure to listen to what the other person has to say, be specific about what you’d like to see happen, do it at the appropriate time, and give them the opportunity to correct course.
As studies have shown, people crave feedback. So use these ingredients to whip up your next feedback, and your critique will be more palatable, and most importantly, helpful.
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