Transforming Negative Feedback

A common challenge for managers is how to deal with employee behaviours and possible conflict that could result from a negative reaction on their part to feedback they have received. You might feel like saying ‘come on get over it’ but negative feedback has the potential to impact on a person at a very deep level and cause a lot of conflict.

In their book ‘Difficult Conversations, How to Discuss What Matters Most’ (1999, Stone, Patton, Heen) refer to what they term ‘identity issues’, in other words what an event tells us about ourselves and who we are in the world. Competence – being seen as capable, proficient and able to do a good job is a core identity issue for many people. Being told therefore in a performance review that you didn’t achieve a particular grade can feel very threatening and upsetting. Once we feel threatened and upset, we are then much more vulnerable to engaging in reactive and unfriendly behaviours.

So how might a manager best manage a situation where an employee has developed an ‘attitude’ as a result of negative feedback?

Tony is a manager of a team of 12 people. Recently an opportunity to work on a special project arose and all team members were invited to apply for this role. Five applied in a process consisting of an interview and presentation. One was selected in the end, and Tony met each of the other four to give them feedback on why they were not chosen. Since then, Tony has noticed that one of them Mary, has been a bit aloof and distant towards him, for example not bothering to engage much in team meetings.

What does Tony do? Here are the steps he took, which have since led to a positive rebuilding of the working relationship.

  • He observed the behaviour and rather than reacting to it or becoming defensive, he realised that it was a function of Mary’s own upset and disappointment about the situation
  • He decided that he would need to do something about the situation and try and get it sorted out. He realised that he needs to rebuild this relationship and ‘get back on track’ not only from the point of view of the team and the work that gets done but also because it’s much pleasanter to work with someone when there is a friendly rather than distant professional relationship
  • He reflected thoroughly on the situation in a conflict management coaching session and in doing that came to a couple of realisations:
    • In thinking back on the presentation that Mary had given, Tony realised that she had put huge time, effort and passion into it.
    • This meant that any negativity or rejection would be hard to hear and that Mary would need support to deal with the disappointment
    • Tony realised that he hadn’t really empathised fully with Mary when he had met her to give her the negative feedback
    • He also realised he hadn’t given Mary a chance to talk through her disappointment or to give her viewpoint on what he said

He decided that it was important to talk again to Mary about this and spent some time planning exactly what he wanted to say. He knew it was important to get across to her:

  • His acknowledgement of how much work Mary had put in and to empathise with her upset and disappointment
  • Invite Mary to share about this herself and give her the opportunity to express her views around it and have them listened to by Tony
  • Reiterate how much he valued her as a team member and contributor to the team and that her talents were valued and needed
  • Reiterate how much he valued her as a person working on the team and let her know that it was important to him to rebuild a good working friendship.

He also prepared himself to hear some negative feedback from her – perhaps about how he had selected the person or carried out the interviews. He knew that this might make him become a bit defensive but that the better way to deal with it would be to:

  • Listen attentively and not interrupt
  • Acknowledge that it was reasonable that she might see it in that way
  • Explain to her with as much transparency and honesty as possible his viewpoint and what his reasons were for taking the actions he did
  • Assure her that he would reflect on her feedback
  • Reiterate again the positive aspects of her performance at the interview and presentation and encourage her to continue to give of her best

Result: One somewhat edgy and tricky conversation for Tony but a much more engaged and motivated team member at the end of the day.

Talk to us about how to give negative feedback and avoid conflict on your team