Tough Love: Criticize Workers So They Improve

It’s easy to praise people for excellent work in a performance review. But pointing out their failings and coaching them to improve requires more tact.


Many leaders dread delivering negative feedback. Eager to be liked, they fret that highlighting what’s wrong might make them less adored bosses. Worse, they may fear staffers will react defensively and get upset.

As a result, some managers skip it entirely. Then they find that employees continue to underperform, make more errors and set a bad example for new hires.

Making people aware of how to do their job better in a performance review doesn’t guarantee they’ll follow through. Leaders who cultivate strong relationships built on trust are more likely to make a positive impact when giving negative feedback.

To dish out firm but supportive criticism, leaders use a variety of strategies.

Keep It Flowing Beyond The Performance Review

If you’re stingy with feedback, then it stings more when you lower the boom in a performance review. It’s better to maintain a steady diet of positive and negative input so that employees are flooded with insightful commentary on their performance.

“It needs to be an ongoing process, not a singular event,” said Cheryl Fields Tyler, chief executive of Blue Beyond Consulting in Castro Valley, Calif. “That way, the feedback isn’t a high-stakes moment. In almost every employee survey, people say they want more feedback.”

First, seek permission. Set the stage to give negative feedback. How? Get the employee’s go-ahead before you plunge in. Start by asking, “Would you like some feedback?” After you hear an affirmative answer, you can proceed.

“That gives the person agency,” Fields Tyler said. By accepting your offer, the worker is more likely to treat the input seriously.

Performance Review Pro Tip: Be Direct

After becoming aware of an employee’s poor actions or behavior, you have a choice: You can either talk to the individual or not.

“If they see something that troubles them, many (managers) talk to others about it,” Fields Tyler said. “But they don’t talk to the person. It can be very challenging to take on a direct confrontation,” even though that’s the best way to foster trust and help people learn and grow.

Customize How You Communicate

When it comes to giving hard-hitting feedback in a performance review, one size does not fit all. You need to tailor your communication style to appeal to each employee.

Someone who responds well to notes might appreciate receiving your input in writing. A high-energy extrovert, by contrast, might prefer a face-to-face conversation, Fields Tyler says.

Tie Solutions To Problems

If you dwell on the problem, your feedback can prove demoralizing. Some leaders deliver a harshly blunt critique in a performance review, but that alone won’t elevate someone’s performance.

“Don’t just criticize. Provide better ideas for the future,” Fields Tyler said. “Be prepared to coach” and suggest steps to enable the employee to address the issue at hand.

Brace For Impact Following A Performance Review

As the leader, you may treat giving negative feedback as an unpleasant but necessary part of the job. Don’t overlook the psychological toll it can take on you.

“Our research shows that, for leaders high in empathy, giving negative feedback has an impact on the leader,” said Emily Corwin, a Ph.D. candidate in management at Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas. “They felt less attentive and more stressed. They’re more susceptible to catching the negative emotions that the employee gives off.”

That’s why Corwin, who is researching the use of feedback in organizations, suggests that empathetic leaders block off recovery time after sharing negative feedback with someone.

If you rush off to negotiate a big contract or pitch your business to investors right after conducting a stressful conversation with an employee over a performance issue, your adverse emotional reaction can carry over into your next meeting.


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