Negative feedback hurts. Sometimes the pain is intellectual – the recipient feels offended about something specific that was said, or just how wrong the critic was! But almost always, the hurt makes itself known with that queasy feeling in the belly. The feeling of being called-out, rightly or wrongly. And perhaps anticipation about the inevitable conflict that will ensue.
Instructing your employees on how to handle and process this hurt, and to improve their work at the same time, should be essential for HR managers. But it’s often an afterthought. We’re schooled in how to give, not receive, feedback.
Techniques for giving and receiving feedback are bound up with ideas of empathy – simply because feedback is such a sensitive subject. Criticism is supposed to be an area of concrete fact or grown-up debate. But when people get hurt, is just as important to understand the emotional mechanics at play.
Why not arrange a group session to go over some techniques for receiving negative feedback? There are plenty of areas to cover: preparing physically and mentally. Processing and responding. Apologies and thank you’s.
Preparing physically for feedback
Your colleagues don’t always know when they are about to be ambushed with negative feedback! That’s all the more reason for them to know how to prepare once it is clear that feedback is about to be delivered.
Of course, you can ensure management give them ample opportunity by encouraging them to let employees know when they’re about to receive criticism.
When receiving that criticism, the employee should first calm the body to calm the mind. Steady breathing and a confident gait make it easier for them to hold their temper and remain professional. Remaining calm is important because we tend to hear things that weren’t said and miss important details when we feel angry or threatened. The emphasis at this stage should be on listening, so calmness and focus will help bring out the best resolution for both parties.
Listening and notetaking
Good listening means interrupting only for clarifications (for example, to repeat back what the recipient heard). It means rushing neither to apologize or to defend yourself. An apology, if deserved, needs to be meaningful and heartfelt. If you expect your employees to apologize for a mistake that they don’t yet understand or agree with, you’re not running a company – you’re running a dictatorship!
Encourage your staff to take notes when they receive feedback. This will help them to learn from their mistakes (and to log them objectively, rather than misremembering perceived insults). It also helps to frame the feedback process as just that: feedback. Not a dressing-down. Even if there is a disciplinary element to the feedback being given, it is being given in order to improve communication and performance, not to make anybody feel small. Taking notes is one way to bear in mind that the feedback is intended to be useful.
These notes can then form the basis of studying and learning from the feedback. Show your employees how to break them down into manageable tasks and new workflows. Encourage them to ask for examples of where they’ve gone wrong and how to improve. And encourage management to use such examples when giving negative feedback.
Feedback is a fact of life, and nobody improves much without it. But it is a sensitive matter. Equip your employees to handle negative feedback, and you can greatly improve their personal performance and the atmosphere and results of the whole business – without hurting anybody’s feelings.
About the author: John Cole writes on behalf of NeoMam Studios. A digital nomad specializing in leadership, digital media, and personal growth topics, his passions include world cinema and biscuits. A native Englishman, he is always on the move, but can most commonly be spotted in the UK, Norway, and the Balkans.