The Blight of Soul-Crushing Useless Negative Feedback
Negative feedback is destructive and all-too-common. There are three common problems that erode the power of these conversations.
My phone buzzed with a text message from Amena, a junior manager. “Just had annual eval – most useless ever. Negative feedback that makes no sense.”
I’d coached this woman—a hardworking, strategic thinker who passionately cared about the company and its customers. Another text quickly followed the first: “My eval was ‘good’ on everything except where I was ‘very good’ at getting along with people. But then…”
The phone buzzed with her final thought:
Have you experienced her frustration? Meaningless platitudes followed by a vague assertion that something you’ve never heard about should have been better – this kind of feedback is worse than nothing at all.
Because many managers lack the courage or know-how to give meaningful feedback and help their people grow, they default to useless negative feedback that isn’t just a waste of time—it’s painful and destructive.
But like you, most leaders don’t intend to give poor feedback or hurt people, so what goes wrong?
Characteristics of Useless Negative Feedback
Three characteristics make performance feedback so destructive. If you can identify and avoid these three problems, you’re on your way to helping your people achieve great results and becoming a leader they can rely on and trust.
Problem #1: One-sided Feedback
People need to hear what they’re doing well. They also need to know where they aren’t getting the job done. Many managers err on one side or the other.
Some managers hang in the land of “great work, love what you’re doing” and never address real performance concerns or tell their people how they can grow. This frustrates people who want to do a good job. Your top performers want to excel, and if you don’t help them, they’ll find a leader who will.
Other managers live in the world of “I’ll encourage you when it’s perfect—and there’s no such thing as perfect.” This one-sided barrage of critical feedback and improvement plans demoralizes people. If nothing they do will ever be good enough, why bother?
Solution: Balance Your Ratios
People need encouragement and they need to hear what’s not working. You get more of what you encourage and celebrate, less of what you criticize and ignore. So, address both.
Consistently encourage what’s working. When someone isn’t performing well, talk about it. However, unless your team member has specifically asked for feedback, avoid the dreaded “sandwich method” where you shove something negative between two niceties.
That feels manipulative—or they might focus on your positive comments and ignore what you were really trying to say.
Problem #2: Vague Feedback
Another critical feedback mistake is to speak in vague generalities. Examples include the feedback Amena received that she hadn’t “been very productive in the last three months” as well as statements like:
- “You’re doing great.”
- “You rocked it back there.”
- “You need to step up.”
- “You’ve got a great/poor attitude.”
Notice that both encouraging and critical feedback can be vague and general. There are a couple of problems with vague feedback. First, the person doesn’t know what they did well (or poorly) so it’s unlikely to reinforce or change behavior.
Second, when you address a general characteristic like someone’s attitude, you put yourself in an impossible situation. You can’t actually know what their attitude is. Their attitude is an internal set of feelings and thoughts. You’re not seeing an attitude; you’re seeing behaviors you interpret as a great or poor attitude.
Speaking in vague generalities often results in frustration, misunderstandings, and doesn’t encourage performance.
Solution: Address Specific Behaviors
When you encourage someone, be specific about what they did and why it mattered. Eg: “I really appreciate the extra time you spent solving that client’s problem this morning. I know they’re difficult. You showed so much patience. They called me this afternoon to let me know how much they appreciate the firm and will renew their account.”
When you need to share feedback about something that isn’t going well, you can use the INSPIRE Method to plan for and hold the conversation. The N step in INSPIRE stands for “Noticing” a specific behavior.
Be specific. Eg: “I noticed that you came into the meeting fifteen minutes after it started.” Or “I noticed that when your colleagues brought up ideas in this morning’s meeting, you interrupted them with negative comments.”
Where a vague generality leads to defensiveness, a specific observation is the start of a conversation. And a note here: specific feedback requires clear and specific shared agreements about what success looks like.
Problem #3: Delayed Feedback
Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the negative feedback Amena received is that she didn’t hear about it for months.
Without looking at your calendar, you probably don’t remember what you did three weeks ago, much less three months ago. When you wait weeks or months to reflect on someone’s performance, you have no chance of changing behavior.
Moreover, as Amena shouted in her text if it was wrong back then, why didn’t you say something? It’s a fair question. Formal performance evaluations should never contain any surprises.
Solution: Do It Now
Encourage and redirect your people as close as possible to the event you’re reacting to. The more time that goes by, the less meaningful your negative feedback will be.
One barrier to quick feedback is unclear or vague expectations. One of the most common problems leaders bring us is team members who aren’t performing to their expectations. We always ask two questions:
1) If we asked the person what success looks like, would they have the same answer you do?
If not, that’s the first conversation to have. Reset expectations and go from there.
(Often, the leader will ask us, “Do I really need to do that? Shouldn’t they just know?” The answer is yes, you do; and no, they won’t. Be clear and eliminate any possibility of misunderstanding.)
2) Have you told them that there’s a problem?
Too often, the answer to this question is a version of “No, not really.”
But it’s magical thinking to believe that someone will spontaneously decide that their behavior isn’t working when all the evidence they have says everything is fine. Have an I.N.S.P.I.R.E. conversation that gets results and builds the relationship.
You can transform useless performance feedback into helpful, energizing, and productive conversations when you consistently encourage, correct when needed, address specific behaviors, and share feedback quickly.