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The power of negative feedback

Feedback isn’t only about praise. Managers who become too concerned with building happy workplaces can overlook the importance of constructive and negative feedback on staff performance. JUSTIN REYNOLDS reports.

A recent report into employee engagement by Seattle-based software company Tiny Pulse discovered that the intangible aspects of an organisation, like culture, interpersonal relationships and work environment, are the top factors that correlate with staff happiness.

Fancy that. It turns out that people don’t like working at places where everyone’s screaming at each other all the time and laughter is rarely heard!

In order to attract the best candidates and encourage them to stick around for the long haul, many organisations have spent significant time and money pursuing and installing positive company cultures. At these businesses, employees are encouraged to smile often, compliment their peers on a job well done and generally become more conditioned to offering feedback.

Such changes extend to management also, and those in positions of leadership are expected to be in chipper moods and recognise the hard work of their teams as regularly as possible.

While it’s great to work at a ‘happy’ retail store, there are plenty of downfalls to being too nice and expecting employees to conduct themselves similarly. One can’t expect a small business to reach its full potential if no one ever talks about what’s going wrong or how people could become much more effective in their roles. In this sense, constructive and even negative feedback can play a role in driving performance just as positive feedback does.

If an organisation is one where everyone is ordered to play nicely with each other every day, how are staff supposed to share negative feedback with other employees or, worse, managers with their teams?

Seek improvement from within

First thing’s first: changing the culture of a business starts at the top. Let employees know that the culture needs to be changed in order to help the company and the staff to both reach their goals.

"One can’t expect a small business to reach its full potential if no one ever talks about what’s going wrong or how people could become much more effective"

Volunteer to be the guinea pig and go first. Create an open forum and ask employees the ways in which they believe management can improve. Ask them what management could do to hold more effective meetings. Ask them what management could do to make their jobs easier.

If members of the team are unlikely to share honest feedback with superiors because they’re afraid of repercussions, use an anonymous survey or a third-party intermediary to allow staff to comment freely.

Once all feedback has been collected, thank staff for their time and begin assessing the responses. Now, store managers have feelings too, so try not take any of the negative feedback to heart. Instead, carefully consider it and make a list of possible changes that reflect the major staff sentiments. Start installing these as soon as possible and communicate the changes to all staff. This will show the team that management is serious about instituting a new feedback system and that the feedback is having an effect.

Use thoughtful language

Contrary to what one might think, studies show that employees actually prefer receiving negative feedback from their managers. Think about it and it makes sense: how else can a worker make it to the next level if nobody ever tells them what they’re doing wrong and how they can improve?

Constructive feedback is necessary
Constructive feedback is necessary

While changing a culture to encourage constructive feedback is a big step in the right direction, it doesn’t mean the workplace should become a feedback free-for-all. Managers and employees alike must remain mindful of hurting each other and should avoid insulting or talking down to each other.

Basic levels of decency must remain in place.

Once staff have had a chance to let management know what they could do to become better leaders, it’s management’s turn. Spend some time reviewing each worker’s abilities, as well as their contributions to the company.

Try to figure out how you can convey what each employee could be doing better and then communicate this in a positive and wholesome way.

It’s much easier to share negative feedback when management and staff have relationships of trust. Be honest, open and transparent at all times and never make feedback personal. Whenever possible, try to include some compliments with any constructive criticism.

That way, everyone is motivated while simultaneously learning how they can improve.

Managing misunderstandings

When trying anything new, all workplaces are bound to encounter some hiccups along the way. Those managers who aren’t in the habit of sharing negative feedback with their teams won’t be experts at it right away.

There is some danger of hurting someone’s feelings or creating misunderstandings when a process of negative feedback is starting out but this is to be expected.

In fact, if management doesn’t experience any misunderstandings, chances are they’re not taking the right approach. Try to remain cool, calm and collected, learning from any misunderstandings that arise so that they can be avoided in the future.

Above all, if all parties can keep respect at the forefront of any exchange, most issues should be avoided.

It’s okay to apologise

As mentioned above, there will be times when members of a team may misunderstand feedback or take it the wrong way. Managers are likely to experience some growing pains of their own as they adjust to their new roles as the purveyors of constructive criticism.

In the event that managers ever overstep the boundaries or say something they come to regret, the best policy is to own it.

Apologise and promise to try to never make the same mistakes again.

Great leaders are willing to admit when they’re wrong. Managers will make mistakes and those who can apologise for it will win the respect of their employees, who will appreciate the honesty.

Every situation is different
"How else can a worker make it to the next level if nobody ever tells them what they’re doing wrong and how they can improve?"

If an employee is having a spectacularly horrible week – perhaps one of their parents just became seriously ill – it’s not the right time to sit them down and tell them what they’re doing wrong. Be aware of what’s going on in their lives and time any feedback accordingly.

Similarly, managers should avoid delivering feedback at times when they’re in a bad mood. Maybe they haven’t eaten all day or didn’t get enough sleep last night.

Those managers who recognise this and wait until things have improved before delivering feedback will be more balanced than those who react impulsively.

It’s important to note that managers and employers shouldn’t ever deliver feedback that is specific to someone’s personality or criticise someone for hearsay.

Always substantiate feedback with supporting evidence that backs up any negative criticism.

Always be improving

Once a feedback system is implemented, it is not set in stone. Employees and managers should both know that the system is ever-evolving and open to adjustments, especially in the preliminary stages as everyone adjusts to it. This way, employees will be more receptive to feedback and the company will become much stronger as a result.

There’s no such thing as a manager who’s perfect at delivering feedback. Learn from each experience and tweak accordingly. In times when feedback was not delivered successfully, figure out what went wrong and note what worked in times when staff were particularly receptive to feedback.

Regularly ask employees for their thoughts on the feedback system and try to incorporate the best ideas into it. Continuously refine the system to make sure it’s easy for the team to get the feedback they need to reach their full potential and to give the feedback to management that they feel is appropriate.

Justin Reynolds

Contributor • Tiny Pulse

Justin Reynolds is a detail-orientated writer, researcher, and storyteller based in Connecticut, US. Learn more:

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