6 Ways That A Manager’s Constructive Feedback Can Go Bad

Published: Mar 15, 2017
Modified: Jun 01, 2020

By David Lee

When managers attempt to give constructive feedback—but do so ineffectively—employees end up feeling misunderstood, unfairly judged, resentful, and ultimately more disengaged.

Done well, constructive feedback does not merely lead to performance improvement. It can also strengthen the relationship between manager and direct report because the employee feels understood, respected, and treated fairly.

As in medicine, the guiding principle when giving feedback should be “First, do no harm.” Here are six mistakes to avoid when giving feedback so that you “do no harm.”

Avoiding the conversation until you’ve “had it up to here.” When managers wait until they’re in a frustrated, take-no-prisoners state to deliver feedback, not much good is going to come from the conversation. If we’re going for the throat, how could the other person not feel attacked and become defensive?

Using an overly formal or forceful opening. Managers often do this to let the employee know they mean business and reduce the odds that he or she will “fight back.” While a serious, all-business demeanor is appropriate for very serious matters and egregious mistakes, it’s not necessary in most situations. No one likes to feel scolded or reprimanded.

When you use a low-key approach that communicates “We’re two adults here” instead of “You are about to be scolded by the principal,” you accomplish two things. One, you elicit a much more receptive response, and two, you engender appreciation for your respectful approach.

Communicating judgment without clarifying the specifics. Statements such as “You need to be more customer-centric” or “more professional” mean nothing without concrete, specific examples to illustrate them. Labels without examples leave people feeling helpless about making changes because they don’t know what specifically you’re unhappy about or what you want instead. Helplessness triggers the Reptilian Brain’s “I’m in danger” response and leads to fear, anger, and resentment.

Using the “sandwich technique.” Some people still teach this technique—in which negative feedback is delivered between two compliments—even though most employees despise being on the receiving end of it.

While the sandwich technique can be useful when done sincerely—and judiciously—most of the time it produces the opposite of its intended result. Because it’s been used formulaically over the years, employees know that right after the compliment, they’re going to hear a “but” and some criticism. So as the manager is giving the compliment, they are steeling themselves for the bad news, which tends to make the sandwich hard to swallow. It also makes people doubt the sincerity—and therefore trustworthiness—of the sender.

Sugarcoating negative feedback. When you’re afraid of hurting the other person’s feelings or triggering a negative response, it’s (unfortunately) natural to sugarcoat negative feedback. The result? Employees can’t decipher what you’re trying to say or the seriousness of the matter.

Plowing forward with an action plan without first getting agreement about the problem. Before you discuss how to solve the problem, you need to determine whether the employee understands and agrees with your feedback or has a different perspective. Without understanding and agreement, he will not be ready to discuss a remedy and commit to an action plan. Instead, he’ll be focused on what he sees as your inaccurate and unfair perspective.

If the employee disagrees, take time to listen to his point of view. This conversation may result in several possible outcomes: One of you may adjust your perspective based on the new information. In some cases, an employee still may not agree with your feedback but recognize that he needs to use it. In others, he may refuse to use the feedback, resulting in consequences of your choice.


About The Author

David Lee is the founder and principal of HumanNature@Work and the creator of Stories That Change. He’s an internationally recognized authority on organizational and managerial practices that optimize employee performance, morale, and engagement. He is also the author of Powerful Storytelling Techniques (ATD Press) and nearly 100 articles and book chapters, including one on using storytelling in onboarding in the third edition of The Talent Management Handbook (McGraw-Hill, 2017). You can contact him at [email protected], or follow him on Twitter at @HumanNatureWork.