How to Give (Negative) Feedback Effectively

Getting honest and useful feedback is a wonderful gift. Obviously positive feedback (“You’re doing a great job with this project!”) is awesome because it makes you feel good and motivated to keep up the good work. Negative feedback, (“Your site is extremely hard to navigate and I wasn’t able to complete the signup process”) can be painful to hear, but if you can swallow your pride, it’s actually an amazing opportunity to improve what you’re working on.

On the other side, being able to deliver good feedback (especially negative feedback) means you have the opportunity to influence the people and projects around you to make them better. But because many people shut down when recieving negative feedback about themselves or others, it’s important to deliver that feedback in the right way.

As a startup founder, I give and receive a ton of feedback both positive and negative, so this is something I think about a lot. Here are some suggestions I have for delivering negative feedback effectively. Follow them and watch your feedback’s influence increase.

DO:

  • Show you care about the project/person
    “I’m totally behind your efforts to help disabled athletes in China…”
  • Show you understand and are aligned with the projects goals
    “I know you are focusing on just one market at this time…” 
  • Show that you’ve thought through reasons why the implementation might be what it is
    “I bet you saw good reasons to use three buttons instead of two…” 
  • Be specific about the situation/part of the thing you are giving feedback on
    “When I was trying to send a picture to my girlfriend, it also shared it on Facebook and I didn’t expect that…”
  • Explain exactly why you think this is a problem
    “If the party playlist is only remixes of “Call Me Maybe” I think a lot of people would get annoyed and leave early…”
  • Show that you are open to different solutions to this problem
    “I could see us building more unit tests and/or getting more disciplined about QA before the release…”
  • Recognize the limits of your knowledge/expertise
    “I don’t work in your industry, but one thing that’s worked for us is…” 

DON’T

  • Generalize or Exaggerate
    “Makes me throw up every time I look at it…” (unless of course, this is actually true!)
  • Give unnecessarily rude feedback
    “An utter piece of shit…”
  • Indicate that there is one and only one possible solution
    “There’s no question that if you don’t immediately build this feature, everyone is going to leave”
  • Assume the worst motives of the people involved
    “These guys are like every other investment banker – they swindle others to enrich themselves”

So those are my suggestions for delivering negative feedback effectively. What other suggestions do you have?

Photo Credit: Dell Think Tank – NYC

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12 comments
Fnthawar
Fnthawar

I think the problem with the approach you describe is that while it's filled with a bunch of good tips, there isn't a general process to follow. For example, 1. State the facts - "I've noticed that we're not getting enough resumes" 2. Check for agreement - "Do you agree?" 3. Describe how it affects you - "I feel like we're not spending enough time on outbound activities" 4. Offer suggestions - "Have you thought about LinkedIn?" This can avoid the *shit* sandwich from above (bad comment - good comment - bad comment). Btw, this is the same advice given married couples in marriage counseling :)

EMP_073
EMP_073

great article, love the fact that you do a resume at the end of the article.

Jeet Banerjee
Jeet Banerjee

As long as (negative) feedback or criticism is given in a kind and courteous manner with intent to help not hurt, I think it should be done. An individual who cannot take criticism is not prepared to get to the next level. Just my personal thought on the matter...

serbrech
serbrech

Thanks for that list of advices.

I find myself often delivering a negative feedback in the wrong way. People have feelings, and the form of the message is half the work to get your point through.

In some cases, even if they know that you are right, they will not act on it because they were hurt, and it takes a lot of practice and experience to manage to build constructive discussion around a negative feedback.

On the other side, I wish people would throw bad feedback in my face when they mean it.

I think it is as important to know how to receive a negative feedback, as it is to give it. It's not you who are being criticized, it's the work. Put your ego aside and get back to work.

Alistra
Alistra

Generalize or Exaggerate

“Makes me throw up every time I look at it…” (unless of course, this is actually true!)

 

Give unnecessarily rude feedback

An utter piece of shit…”

 

Those two are actually better said than not said sometimes, so the advice is shit. Also if people you work with people that get insulted when you say something like this to them, you should really consider changing your workplace. People say bad things to each other - faster everyone will get over it, the better.

moreati
moreati

I totally agree with your constructive feedback tips, and I understand your time is limited - you have many such posts to write. I'm guessing you can't employ an expensive proof reader. Once I read the 2nd Don't tip I noticed the text "no question that you don’t", which might read better as "no question that _if_ you don’t". Otherwise this might cause overly detail oriented people to write silly comments. On the other hand there are many different examples and ways of writing them, and I'm not a professional copy writer

 

(This is part exercise: make the shortest message I could incorporating all the Do tips, part lame joke)

erangalperin
erangalperin

Loved the article. My personal pet peeve is people trying to educate me on what I should do on my startup that I've worked on for close to 2 years, without understanding (or trying to understand) anything about the market, the audience or the dynamics involved. Everybody's an expert now.

 

On the other hand, *good* negative feedback is amazing - I love hearing people's gut reactions, like what they don't understand or what is missing for them. That information is invaluable.

jasonshen
jasonshen moderator

 @Jeet Banerjee If you notice, most of these suggestions are about making your comment kind/courteous. If your goal is to make the feedback stick, what matters most is that the person gets the message - regardless of whether they are "prepared to get to the next level" or not.

jasonshen
jasonshen moderator

 @Alistra Thanks for sharing your thoughts. While there are some environments that work well despite an aggressive feedback culture (ex: finance, the military) I still maintain that most of the time, feedback will be more effective when delivered in this manner.

 

If your goal is to get the other person to take action and you piss them off with your profanity, exaggeration or generalization, you risk them ignoring your feedback for no good reason. Most of the time, you do not have the ability to remove the other people you work with or easily change workplaces so this is a risk you should avoid whenever possible.

 

Having said that, I think it's good to personally develop thick skin so you can take "harsh" feedback and still use it to improve, but I would not recommend it as a tactic when it's so easily avoidable.

jasonshen
jasonshen moderator

 @moreati Haha - ok you got me. It's true that when you take it to the extreme, feedback becomes very long. I didn't think of it as much of a checklist as a set of things to keep in mind. I've made the fix, thanks!

Jeet Banerjee
Jeet Banerjee

 @jasonshen  @Jeet Banerjee Yeah definitely. I agreed with everything that you said on there. I have just personally found that conveying a message as nice as possible just has a better effect because the person isn't distraught with you after. 

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