Negative Feedback, a Tool to Help or a Weapon to Hurt?

By Al Gonzalez

Updated Over a Week Ago

Minute Read

Negative feedback doesn’t mean that any of us wakes up in the morning and thinks, “I can’t wait to hurt a co-worker today.” The sad truth is that we may be doing just that, depending on the approach we take when delivering negative feedback.  While our intent may be to help, giving feedback indirectly may actually do more harm.

Do you like it when others tell your boss, an HR representative, or a colleague something negative about your performance?

Wouldn’t it be preferable for others to let you know how they feel directly? My guess is that most of us would appreciate the opportunity to present our point of view and/or work on improving our performance instead of having others talk about what we did or didn’t do.

Tales Grow Taller

As the saying goes, “tales grow taller,” and while we may have the best intentions, when we share feedback indirectly, we often introduce some distortion of facts or invalid opinions. What is even worse, the person receiving the feedback will more than likely generate her/his own opinion without context or explanation from the person in question.

While some wise people may take the feedback with “a grain of salt” and wait before generating an opinion, many times, a negative perception starts to develop, especially when we consider our tendency toward a negative bias.

A big problem with this issue is that we share negative feedback indirectly all the time. Many times we do it without the best intentions. This is especially true when there is a conflict between two individuals. Although I am not proud to admit this, I have caught myself sharing feedback indirectly many times.  In my experience, it takes a daily effort not to fall into what I call the “self-justification trap.”

There are certainly times when sensitive issues need to be discussed with a manager, such as in cases of possible harassment. Many times, the individual making the complaint needs coaching and direction on how to approach a difficult situation.

To frame this important topic during my workshops, I outline three common feedback options, and then the group discusses the “pros” and “cons” of each.

Option 1: Sharing Judging Information

The first option is very common and is more gossip than feedback. This is when we share judging and distorted information about a person with others. Many times, we do this when we are in conflict with the other person. This type of feedback can lead to the formation of demoralizing “cliques” and negatively affect a team’s ability to cooperate.

What are the pros of this approach?  

What are the cons?

As a supervisor, I have received judging/distorted feedback many times and been told to go “fix” the “problem” with the other individual.  Interestingly, many times the other individual comes in at a different time and gives me feedback about the person who asked me to fix her/him. I want to help others avoid the self-justification trap and all its negative consequences.

A great book on this topic is Leadership and Self Deception from the Arbinger Institute. The model of collusion presented in the book provides an excellent explanation of our tendency to distort others’ actions into “self-justifying” reasons for judging others (while seeing ourselves as good, hardworking, and honest). In reality, this self-image is seldom the truth, as we often engage in negative politics that simply hinder the team’s ability to achieve the best results possible.

The consequences of these negative actions can range from team members avoiding each other to full-blown HR issues requiring hours of valuable time. This often results in less-than-stellar performance and a huge waste of resources.

Is this a common issue where you work?

Option 2: Sharing Feedback Directly

While this option is not as common as talking about others or asking a supervisor to handle a situation by addressing someone else’s problem, it is often requested by many HR departments during times of performance evaluation.  Many well-meaning managers also encourage this type of feedback when they are approached by staff members who have an issue with a co-worker.

What are the pros of this approach?  

What are the cons?

As you may be thinking, while direct feedback is superior to talking about others, sharing feedback directly is difficult and can result in full-blown conflict if not handled properly. I learned this lesson the hard way. As a result, the title of the Feedback session in my workshops is: Proceed with Caution.

Direct feedback can be very difficult and, if not done properly, can cause more conflict than expected. It takes coaching and preparation in order to deliver and receive feedback that builds trust and grows relationships.

Option 3: Prepare and Deliver Feedback

As I mentioned earlier, there are situations when seeking help from a supervisor and/or HR before giving direct feedback is necessary and advised. After many lessons coaching others and preparing for honoring feedback myself, I have found that the first step to delivering honoring feedback should be to talk to someone else.

Yes, you read that correctly. The main difference in this approach is that we should seek to verify our assumptions instead of seeking to justify them, as we do in the self-justification trap.

It is critically important to check our assumptions when we feel the need to deliver feedback to someone.  Assumptions are gifted liars, and we need to find the lies our assumptions may be telling us before we act on them.

When preparing and honoring feedback, we must be working to obtain a heart at peace with the person we would like to correct instead of focusing on what he or she needs to do better. The person we choose to share a particular issue with is very important, as is the way we approach the topic. In serious cases, when there may be legal implications, the first person should be an HR representative and, if appropriate, the supervisor.

In other cases, such as missed deliverables, unreturned emails/calls, and other such issues, the person we choose to speak with should be someone who can be impartial. Our approach should be one of asking for help in seeing things clearly through a dialog.

Obtaining a heart at peace and delivering honoring feedback takes time and often requires forgiveness. I have found over the years that honoring feedback is an investment of time and energy that helps sustain teams and avoid costly conflicts.

How Do You Approach Feedback?

If you have ideas you feel like sharing that might be helpful to readers, share them in the comments section below. Thanks!

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Al Gonzalez
Al Gonzalez
Al has worked for 16 years helping others maximize the quality of their leadership at Motorola, CBS Sports, and Cornell University. He’s used these experiences to develop trust-based leadership tools for all levels of management.
  • Anne Egros says:

    Great article Al. It is very hard for a manager who receive many negative feedback about a specific person to stay objective and stick to facts. It happened to me and could not get support from my supervisor or HR so I confronted the person directly or even in public without getting results of course. At that time I had not been trained to coach people and hiring external consultant was not available. If it would happen today I would hire an independent consultant and ask for coaching the entire team including me to get results.

  • Al Gonzalez says:

    Thanks Anne, same here, I lived this reality many times, and many times, I messed it up. What I love about the work we do is that, maybe, our articles and resources may help managers who may not be able to afford consultants, AND, encourage those who can afford it, to hire expert coaches!


  • Dr. Scott Simmerman says:

    IF you set up a good performance-based measurement and feedback system, an awful lot of the issues and problems that you frame as issues will go away, allowing for the self-correction of performance and a minimization of issues. You might get some good ideas from reading this free feedback analysis checklist that I produced many years ago and then having a discussion about ideas with your performer team, letting them get involved and engaged and aligned.

    A lot of people think of coaching as yelling and screaming on the sidelines, as in a high school football game. In reality, the information shared should align with the goals and objectives which you are tracking. And a lot of this occurs when asking for their ideas about issues and opportunities.

    WAY too often, people receive little helpful performance information and then get surprised by a reality not theirs; then, it becomes more of a confrontation than messages of support and learning.

    Just my two cents, but I have been observing the workplace for nearly 40 years.

  • Florida E Starks says:

    A terrific read! It is such an important practice to incorporate data into feedback discussions. Otherwise, the likelihood of emotion and subjectivity increases leaving the organizations at risk.

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