How to be positive about the negatives

It is a situation that can make us squirm more than Stephen King’s last horror story – you know, that chat you need to have with one of your direct reports? The one where you have to point out a big fat negative in their work. Why is it so hard? Even pointing out a small critique in someone’s work can be tough for several reasons.

When we are working with people on a daily basis, it is taxing to be the “Bad Cop” all the time. Sometimes tolerating behaviour or biting one’s tongue is easier, and saves us from hurting anyone’s feelings – including our own. We don’t want to be an ogre figure in the store, we want to maintain healthy trusting relationships with our staff.

It’s really not easy to give bad feedback and if anyone says that it is, they are either lying, or maybe enjoy it a little too much. But, both of these are rare, and even the most seasoned manager can find it difficult to give negative, or constructive feedback. This conversation becomes harder when you are dealing with an emotionally charged situation, or a person that is displaying irrational behaviour.

Giving negative feedback is also a hard thing to do well. The potential of hurting a relationship with the person in question is a real risk. In addition to this, there is also a risk of disrupting the positive culture you are trying to create throughout your team. There are so many aspects of this conversation that can go wrong, and that is never an easy scenario to manage.

However, being able to give negative feedback well is an absolutely critical aspect to being able to manage a team. This is one of the key tools that every business needs to use to be able to build confidence and ability within their team. There are great benefits associated with this skill. We can build trust by showing people that we are consistent and honest no matter how difficult things get. If done well, we can increase closeness in a relationship too. Having these conversations allows us to build strong relationships with our teams. A bond can form within disagreeing points of view. For example, within personal relationships, the cliché says, “every argument brings you closer”. As a manager “every constructive-feedback-conversation brings you closer”.

We understand that avoiding these conversations is detrimental, and that executing them when required can be good for everyone involved. But how do we perform them to get the best results and mitigate the associated risks?


The earlier the better

Delaying your feedback will reduce the effectiveness of your conversation. Details will be hard to remember, and the person will be less receptive. The term ‘nip it in the bud’ can be utilised here. This also stops feelings festering inside you which can build tension and increases the likelihood of the negative feedback becoming emotionally charged. Giving the feedback swiftly is the best way to go.

Ask instead of tell

Allowing for self-assessment can be a great way to instil learning in the situation and disarm any backlash from the feedback. I find that if I point out faults all the time, it can beat people down, and can build resentment. Instead, get the person to do a self-evaluation by asking them “How could have this been done better?” or “I can spot a problem with this. Can you see it?” This invites discussion, and gives the person a chance to figure it out for themselves, rather than being told what they did that was incorrect. It is a great way to turn a potentially negative conversation into a positive one. We could take this further by inviting discussion on how a task was done, even when it was done well to see if there is room for improvement on our usual activities. I also like to invite discussion and feedback on how I did too. This shows your intention on wanting the best work rather than being driven by ego or status.

Specifics are critical

When giving negative feedback we will cause ourselves a world of pain if we are being vague and inattentive. There is a lot of room for misinterpretation, misunderstanding, and confusion. We want to avoid all of these at the best of times. When someone completes a task poorly, using specific details and clear examples is essential. Having the facts straight is critical otherwise there is no credibility in the feedback. Remember, preparation is your friend, as per any management discussion.

No matter what techniques we utilise, there is one common requirement that is needed at all times. It is acknowledging the way we deliver our feedback as being more important than what we actually say. Be sure to remain respectful, keep the feedback as private as possible (no public shaming), and use an appropriate tone.

A positive intension will carry us through these important conversations, and like many things – the more you do it, the better you will become at it.

Paul has over 15 years of Sales, Marketing, and Management experience from small independent business all the way through to the corporate world. Working with small business leaders, Paul focuses on team dynamics, systems, and adaptability to positively impact revenue. For more information visit



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