The Value of Negative Feedback—When It’s Done Well

Published: Sep 11, 2017
Modified: Apr 09, 2024

The Value of Negative Feedback—When It’s Done Well


In the recent article "Surprising Research Says Negative Feedback Is Effective (and We Might Even Prefer It)," author Joe Hirsch cites research by the leadership firm Zenger Folkman that showed:

“By roughly a three-to-one margin, [employees] indicated that getting suggestions for improvement and being alerted to mistakes did more to raise their performance than positive feedback and praise. When asked to name something that could help advance their careers, fully 72% thought their performance would improve with more frequent and authentic appraisals from managers—even if that meant swallowing difficult news along the way.”

Because of the potential downside of poorly delivered negative feedback, managers contemplating this and other research cited in the article would be wise to recognize that not all negative feedback is equal or productive.

The takeaway message shouldn’t be that you can amp up the negative feedback and watch your employees grow and flourish.

The takeaway from the article should be this: You should make giving feedback—including negative feedback—a part of everyday work life. And, you need to know how to give negative feedback in a way that generates positive results—not disengagement, resentment, and confusion.

Tips for delivering negative feedback

Negative feedback is helpful when it meets these criteria:

  • It’s not the only time the employee gets feedback.
  • The manager makes it a dialogue, not a monologue or a harangue.
  • The manager explains the “why” behind the feedback and recommendation. This explanation helps in two ways: First, if the employee understands the rationale behind the feedback, she is more likely to buy into the feedback. Second, it helps reveal the implicit knowledge and problem-solving processes the manager uses to address challenges and solve problems. This sharing of the manager’s internal world helps turn the manager from a boss into a valuable mentor and coach.
  • The manager’s approach is primarily “feed forward,” using phrases such as “In the future, here's what I would like to see.” The manager doesn’t dwell on the past and what went wrong. The latter feels like criticism, while the former feels like a roadmap to success in that particular area.
  • The feedback is clear and specific through the use of examples and sensory-specific language (what you would actually see and hear). Don’t leave the employee trying to guess what “be more of a team player,” “be more professional,” or other conceptual terms mean.
  • The manager has cultivated a positive, respectful, caring relationship with the employee, so he or she understands that when the manager gives negative feedback, it’s coming from that place.
  • The manager demonstrates a willingness to receive feedback from employees and models open-minded receptivity.

Employees are likely to see negative feedback as valuable, constructive information they can use to perform at their best and grow professionally—if it’s done skillfully. Delivering negative feedback effectively isn’t merely a skills issue, though. It’s also a relationship issue. While employees might value negative feedback from a manager they respect who doesn’t display much caring and concern, managers who do show they care about employees will enjoy even greater receptivity to their feedback. Thus, the wise manager will focus on cultivating both their skills and their relationships with employees.

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.