Courage for negative feedback

“And did you tell him?“ “No, not directly, I did not want to demotivate him!” Are you familiar with this dialog? Most of us shy away from giving negative feedback, whether at home or in the job. Do you think that it could help your employees to know what they can improve in your opinion? Yes? Then have the courage. Give more critical feedback.

It is superfluous to mention, but I would like to point out that negative feedback is just one variant of feedback. And ideally not the only way to give feedback in accordance with the Swabian motto “not telling off is enough praise”. Positive feedback encourages us that we are on the right track. It increases our confidence. Negative feedback, however, gives us an insight into the corners of ourselves which we still can improve, which we do not fully use, which might prevent us from getting on. Elon Musk, head of Tesla, said in an interview: “I think it is very important to actively seek out and listen very carefully to negative feedback. This is something people typically tend to avoid because it’s painful. But I think this is a mistake.”

As a reason for not giving negative feedback, executives often state that they do not want to hurt others. There is the fear behind it to have to bear the consequences of the own feedback, i.e. to annoy the boss or to come into conflict with an employee. Some do not try it or even feign it, for the sake of peace and quiet. The uncertainty how to package the feedback in a way that it is received in the best possible way by the addressee intensifies the hesitation.

A recently completed survey by Emma Edelman Levine (University of Chicago) and Taya Cohan (Carnegie Mellon University) published by the German business news magazine “Wirtschaftswoche” (17/2017) shows another reality. Three experimental groups of a total of 117 persons had to exercise different behaviors for three days. One group had to be very nice to the fellow people, one group had to be especially conscious and communicate carefully and the third group had to tell the truth all the time. The persons of the third group feared that the behavior would have negative consequences for their social relationships. But the opposite happened. Not only did the persons telling the truth feel happier, they also felt more respectful. On closer inspection, it came out that the test persons simply communicated in another way. They were “forced” to address existing relationship problems, expressed their own feelings, felt relieved and at the same time appeared authentic and honest to the other person, which strengthened the relationship instead of weakening it. Being honest with oneself and one’s own feelings, “showing oneself”, makes the difference.

Successful negative feedback also means giving some information on yourself, i.e. to openly discuss your own injuries, needs and desires. This is often connected with feelings which most do not like to show in public.

Another important step is added. Picking up the other person from where he/she is. Max Schupbach calls this “standing on the other side”. And in such a vivid, clear and non-judgmental way that the other person thinks or even says “Thank you, this is exactly the way I feel.” This works best when you research in yourself where you think and act just like the person opposite you. Perhaps you can also learn something from the other person’s behavior and formulate it exactly like this. The other person feels accepted and recognized. Subsequently, you have to represent your own point of view vibrantly. And go into the dialog.

 In summary, this means:

  1. Picking up the other where he/she is, i.e. taking his/her side.
  2. Changing to your own side and clarifying your own position with the related thoughts, effects and feelings.
  3. Clearly formulating the desire, the plea, the expectations on the behavior of the other.

An example:

  1. “I know that these process rules regarding the accounting of business travels are sometimes not really in a good cost/benefit ratio. I have also often thought about escaping this bureaucratic process, especially because we as executives enjoy greater freedom. And we also do more travelling than the other employees…
  2. On the other hand, when we decide on these rules together as a leadership team, we should be a role model and do not enjoy special rights. I fear that this makes us implausible, and not only in case of this rule, but also in other, more important issues. And I also think that this would not be a fair play between us. It annoys me that I adhere to it and you don’t. …
  3. If you have criticism, I wish that you bring it in more intensely during our discussions before the decision. We have now jointly adopted these rules as a leadership team and I assume that we all adhere to them, including you. …”

More on the topic:

On giving an receiving Feedback – Julie Diamond

Get Over Your Fear of Conflict – Amy Jen Su