How to give negative feedback and get positive results

Negative feedback doesn't have to result in wounded egos if it's delivered properly. Here are some tips for making the best of a bad situation.

The new guy's code is a mess that no one else can possibly work on. Or, one of your longtime team members just turned in a pre-sales proposal that completely ignores two of the client's major requests. Or, you discover that the project manager who was supposed to oversee delivery of a crucial project is instead spending his time handholding less-experienced employees through a tricky documentation project—that's due in three months.

It's time to take your troops aside—and take them to task. But how can you give negative feedback that gets positive results? It's not that difficult, particularly if you've ever worked with pets or small children. There's a three-step process you can follow to get the results you want while avoiding tantrums.
  1. "Figure out what you want," says Peter Woolford, Boston IT and Engineering Search market manager for Kforce Inc., a professional staffing firm. "Are you giving negative feedback as a prelude to letting someone go? Or are you hoping that your feedback will be a springboard for improving work output?" Obviously, your approach will be dramatically different in each scenario. When you know what you want, you'll have a clearer idea of how to proceed.
  2. Act swiftly. Children, pets, and rogue IT employees all have short memories. If you identify a problem, address it immediately. Don't wait two weeks or several months and then come back and say, "Hey, remember that time you dropped the ball on the Intel thing?" No, he doesn't remember, and he certainly doesn't think it's a big deal if it took you this long to bring it up.
  3. Be consistent. If there's a problem behavior or if you constantly receive work product that is below acceptable levels, make sure that your staff knows what they're supposed to be doing. Give clear instructions, and make sure that you enforce them. Don't lower your standards to accommodate errors; don't let your sympathy cloud your judgment.

Some pertinent examples
So, let's say you've decided that you want to make your proposal writer aware of her shortcomings, but you're not about to fire her over a first-time offense. Your goal, then, is to get her to improve her work. Let's say you've just finished reading her report, so now is the time to act. You IM her and ask her to step into your office. If you're in an open space area where others might overhear you, leave the office. Remember to always praise in public, chastise in private. No one thinks highly of someone who berates employees in full view of everyone.

Now, what do you say? Well, start by acknowledging the good work she normally does, and how much you value and appreciate her contributions. Then, address the problem. For example, you could say, "Liz, your work is normally some of the best in the office. I'm definitely glad to have you as a part of my team, but I was a bit surprised at some of the oversights in this proposal. The client specifically asked us about designing custom add-ons for the Web-based product, but you haven't mentioned that at all here. What happened?"

Now comes the hard part. Listen to what Liz has to say, and don't interrupt until she's said her piece. Then you can respond. Maybe the problem was as simple as Liz falling asleep in the meeting and missing some key information. Everyone has off days. Maybe Liz felt the solution she proposed was better. Fine, but she has to at least address the client's wishes. Make sure she knows just what you want her to do, and try to end on a positive note. You could say, "Listen, at least we still have time to fix the problem. Thanks for getting this in early." Or, "OK, well, let's make the best of it. I need you to finish this up tonight, since it's got to be on the client's desk tomorrow. I know you'll be able to do it—I really appreciate your hard work."

Let's look at another scenario in which your new developer has the skill, but his coding work is sloppy. "You're probably not going to change him overnight, so break down the job into smaller steps," advises Woolford. "That way, you give your employee a chance to enjoy some small successes along the way."

Say something like, "I’d like you to rewrite this section here. Can you make it more like this template?" If possible, give an explanation for your request. "I know your code is effective, but if you're on vacation or out sick and we have a problem, I need to know that any of the other developers can sit down and work on your projects in a pinch. That's why we try to have uniform standards in the department. I need your code to follow the guidelines we've established."

Hear out your employee, give him his instructions, and send him back to work. Fine and dandy, but what if he hasn't made an effort to code cleanly after several discussions? Now it might be time to let him go. There's the classy way and the way that messes up your karma for good. Go for classy—unless you want to spend your next life as a guppy.

"You don't want to just tell the guy, 'You stink,'" says Woolford. That doesn't accomplish anything—and it ensures longtime grudges. Try a more tactful approach. For example, you could say, "Unfortunately, your approach doesn't mesh with our style."

It's usually not a lot of fun to give negative feedback, but you don't have to dread it either. And, if you're careful about what you say, you'll find you won't have to say it all that often.