Working in IT, particularly on the IT help desk, can often be a “glass half empty” rather than a “glass half full” experience – with many of the day’s activities related to things that have gone wrong. So it’s easy to avoid anything else that is remotely negative in nature, but unfortunately if something is wrong – in terms of people, process, or technology– one has to bite the bullet to provide negative, but hopefully constructive, feedback. Here I provide ten tips for providing such feedback, along with advice on how to ensure that you go about it the right way.
Are you 100% sure that the person you’re providing the negative feedback to is deserving of it? Are you sure that the issue isn’t simply because of bad instruction, faulty processes, misunderstanding, or someone else’s mistake? Always ensure that you have all the facts, and never make assumptions. You’ll only create further damage if your feedback is based on inaccuracies and/or is un-deserving.
When a person receives negative feedback it’s common for them to go into defensive mode. They can often become upset, and worse still, apathetic – the result of which means they actually get worse, not better. It’s also often the case that an individual simply can’t see a way to be better. Think of how many times you’ve completed what you thought was a simple task, only for one day somebody to point out that there’s a much easier and quicker way? Sometimes you simply can’t see that you’re being inefficient, or that a better way exists.
Don’t criticize someone without showing examples of how they can improve.
If you give too much feedback in one go the individual that you’re dealing with might not be sure of which piece of advice to focus on first. Also, to be called out on a number of things can feel overwhelming and make the individual potentially feel like a failure. If, on the other hand, you’re only providing negative feedback on one task or action, it’s more likely to be viewed as smaller mistake that can be easily rectified. It also makes point number one (check, check, and recheck) more difficult if you leave feedback to a later date because it makes it harder to pinpoint where and why an issue occurred, and what the associated facts were.
Different people take feedback and criticism in different ways. Some might get upset, some might get angry, some may choose not to listen, and others may be very welcoming to an opportunity to improve. Thinking in advance about who you’re talking to and how they might react can help you prepare how to best deliver your feedback. Do you need to highlight what they did well first (maybe, but be careful that that’s not the only bit they remember)? Do you need to speak softly in an understanding manner? Do you need to be very direct? Understand your audience and tailor your approach accordingly.
Unless you don’t have this opportunity, always opt to provide your feedback in person. The absence of tone in an email can leave you open to the recipient inferring something that isn’t there, especially if they’re already feeling vulnerable or defensive. Telephone is better than email, but it still leaves you unable to display an open and friendly demeanour, make eye contact, or showcase positive body language. If face-to-face really isn’t an option, try a video call so that the person can at least see you when you speak to them.
Ask them to give their assessment on the situation that you’re referring to. Not only does this help with tip number one (check, check, and recheck), but it helps you to understand their version of events. You may also find that they carry out tip number two (highlight how improvements can be made) for you by offering up their own suggestions for improvements based on their own review of the situation. Most people will understand that there has been an issue, and will welcome the opportunity to discuss it with you.
You want to provide criticism in a way that adjusts the negative behaviour, but doesn’t create a problem between you and the individual. You want to ensure that they still feel comfortable with you, and still feel connected to you, their team, and the company. It’s therefore important when acting on tip number six (let them talk) that you listen carefully to what they have to say. People are unlikely to want to spend the time and effort improving for someone who isn’t interested in their opinions and feelings.
Why did the said individual perform the way that they did? What was the root cause of the issue? If you’ve carefully taken point seven (listen) into consideration then you may have already established why the issue occurred, but if not be sure to discuss this. You can’t fix the issue without fully understanding the problem.
Agree on an action or improvement plan to be followed to ensure that the issue does not reoccur. You need to provide the individual with an opportunity to improve, and you can only do this by agreeing together on a course of action. Set dates for review and let the person know that you’re there to help them should they for any reason struggle to move forward with your feedback or change their behaviour. Don’t just criticize and then close the door.
You may also find it useful to set up a follow-up discussion, simply to allow the person time to digest the information you have given them, accept the criticism, and recover from any injured pride or anger they may have experienced.
Accept that you may have some responsibility to take in the issue at hand. Perhaps you didn’t communicate clearly enough to begin with? Perhaps the individual didn’t feel supported, or felt out of their depth and you didn’t realize? Understand that when you provide criticism and you set about with tip six (let them talk) that you may find yourself to be part of the problem. If so, ensure that the changes you’re required to make are recorded as part of tip nine (agree on next actions).
Remember that the goal of feedback is to improve the behavior of the other person to help both them and your overall business. Negative feedback is an opportunity to make someone work better – do it right and you should notice significant improvements.
So, those are my top ten tips on how to deal with providing negative feedback. Is there anything else that you would add?