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How to Give Feedback on Poor Performance as a Manager

Is constructive criticism the same as feedback? I don’t think so – but others may beg to differ.

I avoid using the word criticism as much as I can (except in a technical ‘literary criticism’ way) as it always feels as if it is negative. It is judgemental in its essence and unpleasant. Most people feel attacked by it, even if it is well meant or ‘for their own good’. The key difference is that feedback talks about the consequences and the criticism focuses on the action or even worse on the person. One judges and the other informs. Both can be difficult to hear but feedback gives people the opportunity to grow.

One of the really challenging things about being a manager is managing performance when it is poor. Telling someone that they are inadequate or failing is a delicate and difficult task for a number of reasons:

  1. Upsetting – most of us don’t want to upset anyone else and it is really hard to give such news without upsetting someone.
  2. Arguments – not only do people get upset they may also get defensive or aggressive or fight back. So there is a risk that they will start having a go at you.
  3. Enemies – the person may take against the person who has criticised them and see you henceforth as ‘the enemy’.
  4. Catastrophiser – the person on the receiving end may be a ‘catastrophiser’ and take it so much to heart that they may think they are useless at everything…
  5. It may not work – even if the actual conversation goes well the person may not change what they do, so this high risk activity has not delivered any results.

Hence criticism is often considered an “art”, because it is delicate, difficult and poses some high level risks to the relationship. The goal should be about changing the unwanted behaviour or bringing about an improvement in the performance AND preserving the relationship. Of course, there are people who actually enjoy criticising others and do it because of their own fragile self esteem (belittling others is a way of building themselves up). Then, there are those whose power has gone to their heads and they hide their own sense of inadequacy behind the ‘I’m in charge.. and can tell you’ behaviour. There are a few people around who have a personality disorder that means they like hurting others and inflicting pain but for most people it is a tough call.

How can you be effective?

Think carefully about what feedback you want to give – is this behaviour something that is annoying to you or is there a real problem being created by it?

  • Focus on what you see or hear happening, what you have observed and or what you have actually been told by someone who did see it. Don’t rely on rumours or hearsay as that will move the firm ground from under your feet. Make sure you have evidence (such as names or dates) with you when you tackle the person.
  • If you have only seen it once (unless it was outrageous) then maybe ignore it? My rule of thumb is that you need to see to hear it three times to be sure that it is a pattern.
  • Think about where you speak to them – never do it in front of others that would humiliate them and run the risk of giving them an audience. Always in private – maybe even off site.
  • Start with a positive. This is known as the hamburger method: to sandwich the meat of the negative feedback between two positive comments.
  • Give yourself some ‘wiggle room’. Broach the subject by saying ‘what I feel’, ‘what I understand to be happening…’ – that way it is less damning and if they can refute the behaviour or the incident you have not gotten into a confrontation by being too firm.
  • Describe what you have seen and when you saw it…..tell them what is not happening or what you are not seeing. Do not use words like ‘always’ ‘never’ as it is unlikely that the person ‘always’ does or does not do that, and once you have exaggerated the frequency, you destroy the credibility of your argument and put them on the offensive. Expect an aggressive reaction.
  • Ask if that is true, an accurate reflection – always see what their perspective is.
  • Explain the consequences of this sort of behaviour…for you, for their colleagues and for the organisation.
  • Focus all the time on the specific behaviour and not on the whole person – never say ‘you are….’ as that is attacking their personality!
  • Express your pleasure at another aspect of their work.
  • Ask for specific new or different behaviours: ‘what I need you to do……’ and explain the positive benefits of what this will mean for the organisation or their colleagues.
  • If you can get them to commit to doing it, ask them what support they need to put this into practice.
  • Set some measures and a review date, that may be next week or even a month away depending on what the change is.


You are not giving them the option of doing it or not – you need to be assertive as you have the right to ask this of them so ask clearly but express it in terms of what you need to see more of, what you need them to do differently etc. Also, focus on the outcomes – you may need to accept a little negotiation around the margins but stick with your principles.

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By Mary Hope

Mary Hope is the founder of Mary Hope Career Success, she works with executives and managers to support them get paid more, promoted faster and feel more satisfied. She has 30 years experience of HR, training and headhunting both private and public sectors, is a published author and career coach. Follow Mary on Twitter @maryhopecareers