Turning negative feedback into a positive experience


As a leader it's your responsibility to develop your employees, meaning that sometimes constructive feedback is necessary. Yet, research shows that 44 percent of managers find it stressful or difficult to provide negative feedback.


Feedback is a key driver of performance and leadership effectiveness, and negative feedback, in particular, can be valuable as it allows employees to monitor and improve their performance. However, giving, processing, and acting on negative feedback is not always easy.


The impact of constructive criticism


Negative feedback is essential for improving a leader’s performance and the performance of their employees. While we have all been on the receiving end of criticism, it is neither easy to give nor take. And yet, if appropriate, timely, and well wrapped, it can be turned into a positive experience. Gallup’s recent research found that employees want any feedback over no feedback – even if it’s negative. Positive feedback helps employees enhance their best qualities, but while negative feedback might suggest a focus on their worst, it creates an opportunity for improvement when viewed in the right light, as insightful critique provides a chance to grow and improve.


Constructive criticism is one of the most underused developmental tools. It helps employees see where they need to improve and why making those improvements is important and offers both a critique and a solution. Good constructive feedback facilitates positive outcomes and creates a positive working environment. It also provides a safe space where a person feels secure enough to ask questions, seek help, and share ideas.


Whilst constructive criticism is clear, direct, honest, and easy to implement, with specific examples and actionable suggestions for positive change, deconstructive feedback, on the other hand, focuses solely on the problem. This type of feedback offers no encouragement, help, or support for improvement and despite the leader’s intentions, it often lowers morale and reduces confidence.


Leaders have a responsibility to deliver both constructive criticism and encouragement to their employees, as leaning too much to one side of this equation can leave employees confused by their leader’s overly positive or negative focus. Effective constructive criticism needs to be delivered with respect and care, as frequent or exclusively negative comments can spark defensive reactions that cloud perceptions and reduce motivation.


Feedback is a two-way conversation


Research shows that 360-feedback employees who get negative ratings are likely to improve their performance more than others. When leaders focus solely on their employees’ strengths, they create the impression that there are no areas in which they need to improve. It also lets managers off the hook for fostering employee development, which ultimately compromises organisational effectiveness and performance. So, instead of encouraging people to avoid negative feedback, leaders need to focus on how to deliver negative feedback in ways that minimise the threat response.


The feedback many employees receive is not helpful. It can often be infrequent, vague, or unrelated to specific challenges. Low-quality feedback is not useful and negative feedback delivered unskilfully can cause more harm than good. When delivered thoughtfully, however, it can provide employees with the actionable data they need to become more effective.


Delivering constructive feedback is difficult at the best of times, but these tough conversations are even harder to have as multiple crises and their side effects continue to impact employees. To make it even more challenging, a change in venue from in-person to remote removes the nuance that can help soften the blow of negative news.


At Acumen, we pride ourselves in offering development that gives managers practical tools to help solve real-life challenges. We offer an extensive menu of courses, workshops and coaching programmes, ranging from communication skills to executive leadership development. In most cases, we design the interventions specifically for each client, but we also offer a wide range of off-the-shelf programmes for those who prefer this approach. For more information about our programmes please contact Simon at simon@askacumen.com.