Jory MacKay
Jory is a writer, content strategist and award-winning editor of the Unsplash Book. He contributes to Inc., Fast Company, Quartz, and more.
November 07, 2019 · 11 min read

5 Ways to Give (And Receive) Negative Feedback

5 Ways to Give (And Receive) Negative Feedback

Feedback rules everything around us. Whether it’s talking to your customers about what features they want or getting feedback from your boss on a website redesign, we all benefit when we step out of our own heads and hear what others think.

But feedback can’t be limited to just back slaps and high-fives. Negative feedback is just as, and sometimes even more important than its more positive counterpart.

Negative feedback helps steer you back on the right path. It helps you see projects and tasks from a different perspective. And maybe even most importantly, it helps you learn, grow, and improve everything from your own skills to the project you’re currently working on.

In fact, 92% of people in one study said that negative feedback is effective at improving workplace performance.

But just because getting (and giving) negative feedback is so important doesn’t mean we’re very good at it.

So how can we learn to quiet the voice inside of us that freaks out and make the most of these critical moments? In this guide, we’ll cover everything you need to know about the power of negative feedback as well as proven step-by-step guides for both giving and receiving it.

Why we feel so threatened by negative feedback

First, the biggest question to answer is why are we so afraid of negative feedback in the first place? If we know it will ultimately benefit us, why is our gut reaction to freak out, push back, or ignore it? Why is it that hearing “Can I give you a bit of feedback?” sends shivers up our spine?

Why we feel threatened by negative Feedback

The problem is twofold.

First, too many of us connect our work to our identity. We see our work not just as a means to an end, but as a representation of who we are as an individual. But when we do this, it means that negative feedback isn’t just a critique of your work but criticism of you as a person.

In fact, according to research by Harvard, when people receive negative feedback at work, they’re more likely to reshape their personal networks and avoid the colleagues who have been critical of us. This is called confirmation bias seeking—in an effort to protect our ego, we surround ourselves only with people who tell us what we want to hear.

However, it’s not just our identity that we feel at risk when we get negative feedback.

We’re hardwired to see criticism as a threat to our very survival. You’ve probably heard of the fight or flight response before. Simply put, this is the psychological reaction that occurs when we’re faced with a perceived attack or harmful event. You see something that could potentially hurt you and your brain triggers a response to help get you away from it—mainly increased heart rate, adrenaline, and stress.

Yet, while this was a powerful tool for saving us from tigers and bears and all types of predators in the past, today, our mind reacts the same way to mental threats. And this is a serious problem in the workplace.

When your boss comes into say that you missed the mark on a project or your work is subpar, you feel threatened in the same way that you would when faced with a predator. Your stress levels spike and your mind screams, get me out of here!

Negative feedback threatens us both physically and emotionally so it’s no wonder we work so hard to avoid it. However, if we want to do our best work (and motivate our team), we need to get past those automatic responses and see negative feedback for what it really is.

What’s worse than critical feedback? No feedback at all.

The first way to do this is by reframing what negative feedback and criticism really are.

In the workplace, criticism isn’t a threat; it’s a superpower. Who wouldn’t want to know where they’ve missed the mark and can improve? Or what features users actually want you to build?

In The Power of Feedback, Joseph Folkman cuts to the core of how we should view negative feedback:

Receiving negative feedback does not mean I am the worst person that ever lived. It only means that someone cares enough to tell me how to improve. If we really dislike someone, the last thing we would do is tell them how to improve.

Hiding from negative feedback or shying away from giving it hurts everyone around you. So how do you learn to give (and get) better negative feedback?

When giving negative feedback: 5 ways to give criticism people actually want to hear

Let’s start with giving negative feedback.

Remember that stat we mentioned earlier about how 92% of people said negative feedback is effective for improving workplace performance? Well, there’s a caveat to it. In order for people to see negative feedback as being effective for improving performance, it has to be delivered appropriately.

As Robert Sutton, an organizational psychologist at Stanford University explains:

In our society, we’re not trained in either giving or getting criticism and we’re remarkably incompetent at understanding how we affect other people. Consequently, negative feedback is very, very difficult to do well.

There’s a clear power dynamic when it comes to giving negative feedback. You as the feedback giver hold a higher status than the person receiving. In order to give it in a way that’s actually useful, you need to acknowledge and work with that dynamic.

But what does that mean in practice? Giving effective negative feedback means following a few steps.

1. Understand the psychology of feedback (and how it’s going to impact the person receiving it)

Negative feedback often happens during emotionally charged moments. But you have to remember why you’re in that position in the first place. As Phin Barnes, a partner at First Round, explains:

The fundamental goal of giving feedback is to help the person you’re talking to. They have to understand that that’s why you’re spending time with them — you want to help make them better.

It’s easy to forget this basic tenet when you’re upset with an outcome. But going into a feedback session without thinking through your goal and the context of the conversation is a huge mistake.

What is the history of your relationship with this person?

How will they understand and take in your feedback (regardless of your intentions)?

Do you have the kind of past that allows for candor? Or do you need to be more careful with your words in order for them to be effective?

Here’s an example. In a Harvard Business Review article, Dr. Emma Seppala describes the story of Kim Scott, author of Radical Candor, being given negative feedback by Sheryl Sandberg:

“Kim Scott, who worked directly for Sheryl Sandberg at Google, recounts a time when Sandberg gave her candid feedback on her presentation mannerisms: ‘When you say ‘um’ every third word, it makes you sound stupid.’ For Scott, it was a turning point. But the reason Scott could take that feedback so well was that ‘I knew that she cared personally about me. She had done a thousand things that showed me that.’”

As Seppa explains, research shows that honest and candid feedback, when given in a supportive way, promotes higher performance and resilience. Whereas, when given in a harsh way, it destroys motivation and engagement.

There’s no one-size-fits-all solution for giving negative feedback. Instead, you need to tailor it to the person you’re speaking with.

2. Reframe feedback as “advice” or “guidance”

If you’re not in a position to give radically candid feedback to someone, you need to be especially aware of your power dynamic. One way to do this is to reframe feedback as something more positive, like advice or guidance.

As Claire Lew, CEO of Know Your Company says, asking for advice instead of feedback makes all the difference:

“The word ‘feedback’ carries a lot of baggage. To some, they automatically associate it with a ‘critique’ or something negative. It can seem scary and formal. But ‘advice’ is a much more welcoming word. Advice is about lending someone a hand. When someone gives you advice, they’re just looking out for you.”

So how does this work in practice? One way is to simply ask someone “Can I give you some guidance or advice?” However, what’s even more powerful is using this to frame your own approach to feedback.

As Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen point out in Thanks for the Feedback, we judge ourselves by our intentions, while others judge us by the effects of our actions. It doesn’t matter if you intend to give guidance and advice if you still come across as deeply critical of someone’s actions.

Instead, your delivery, both in intention and action, will determine whether your negative feedback is heard and absorbed. This means being vulnerable, open, and honest when you engage with someone to show that you truly want to help them. Not just trying to cover up your anger and criticism under thinly veiled “advice.”

3. Forget the sandwich method and focus on candor instead

When it comes to what you actually say during a feedback session, the same rules apply:

  1. Start with the right intentions
  2. Execute in a way that feels safe, helpful, and transparent

Forget about the “sandwich method” of pairing negative feedback with superficial compliments and instead make sure what you’re saying is honest and genuine. As First Round’s Phil Barnes explains:

So much advice about giving feedback says to sandwich negative points between compliments… but in my experience, people just want you to be genuine and direct.

This doesn’t mean you should only focus on the negative, however. Candor isn’t an excuse to go all Ari Gold on your team. In fact, studies have found that:

“High-performing organizations deliver roughly five times as many positive statements (supportive, appreciative, encouraging) to every one negative statement (critical, disapproving, contradictory).”

This also means being aware of the words you’re using when giving negative feedback. As First Round’s Phin Barnes says: “Don’t kill a mosquito with a shotgun.”

4. Be informative and focus on areas of improvement

In order for negative feedback to be effective, it has to be actionable.

Start by letting the person know that you support them (and this won’t change idea-by-idea). Then, lay out your feedback in a way that is informative and focuses on where they can improve. As a guide, make sure your negative feedback is:

5. Continually work on building a culture of trust

Lastly, negative feedback works best when it comes from a place of trust. You trust that your team wants to do their best work. And they trust that you’re giving them the feedback in order to help them improve (not trap them into messing up and getting fired).

As The New York Times’ Smarter Living editor, Tim Herrera explains:

“The solution—whether you’re receiving the feedback or giving it—boils down to trusting that everyone is participating in good faith.”

Unfortunately, this isn’t an easy culture to create.

In a study of 2,700 leaders, researchers found that the majority avoid giving feedback, while 43% described the act as a “stressful and difficult experience.”

One way to counteract this is to make sure everyone has the same expectations on negative feedback early on. Explain to your team that you’ll be candid and open about their performance, but also that you value them and their contributions.

First Round’s Phil Barnes does this by starting each new work relationship by saying:

“Hey, you’re in this job, which means you jumped over a pretty high bar. I’ve looked at your background. I sat in on the hiring process. I know you’re smart. And I know you’re capable and will work hard. I’m here to maximize your potential. And I’m grateful for the opportunity.”

By validating them and their value you reduce the threat of negative feedback and help them see that you’re only trying to help them improve.

When receiving negative feedback: The Dos and Don’ts of how to properly accept criticism

Giving negative feedback can be awkward and uncomfortable, but receiving it is even worse.

The Dos and Don'ts of receiving feedback

There’s a delicate balancing act that takes place when you get negative feedback. On one hand, you want to listen and learn how you can improve. While on the other, you want to protect your ego and defend your actions.

While some people will be better than others at feedback delivery, you also need to learn how to effectively listen to negative feedback. Here are some of the biggest do’s and don’ts on how to receive (and benefit from) negative feedback.

Don’t: React right away

The first thing you need to do once you’ve heard the feedback is to tell yourself to be quiet.

There’s a good chance that during the feedback session you started to feel somewhere between mildly and extremely defensive. And that’s ok. As we wrote earlier, it’s only natural. However, you can’t act on those impulses.

Instead, take a deep breath, thank them for bringing the issue to your attention, and then tell them you need time to think it through and come up with a plan. For example:

“Thanks for bringing this to my attention. Let me get back to you by EOD once I’ve had some time to think through it.”

While the person giving you feedback may want to discuss it right away, it’s completely in your rights to take time to think it through. If the goal of negative feedback is for everyone to improve, then you should have time to step back and learn from it.

Don’t: Take it personally

If the negative feedback caught you by surprise, your ego will probably feel especially bruised. With so much of our identity wrapped up in our work, it’s easy to take any criticism personally.

But negative feedback should be objective. It should be about outputs and actions. Not you as an individual. And even if it’s not delivered that way, you should try to reframe it yourself. Don’t dwell on the negativity. Instead, focus on how you can move forward from it. How can you spin it in a positive light and grow from this experience?

Don’t: Try to justify, deflect, or ignore it

Not taking negative feedback personally doesn’t mean you shouldn’t own the feedback, however. Don’t brush off the feedback or spin it in a way that you won’t grow and learn from it.

This is easier said than done. Author and CEO, Peter Bregman put together a list of all the ways we spin negative feedback to coincide with our own beliefs.

Don’t: Always wait for others to offer up feedback

It might seem weird to ask for negative feedback. However, being explicit and upfront with what criticism you want puts you in control of it. You set the parameters and the schedule. As Peter Gray says, unsolicited advice is rarely taken well:

“It’s important to recognize that it’s human nature not to want unsolicited negative advice. We don’t want people to tell us something negative unless we ask for it and are ready to hear it.”

Instead, create more regular opportunities to receive negative feedback. This could be during 1-on-1 meetings, performance reviews, or standups.

Do: Take time to gather your thoughts and not get overwhelmed

Once you’ve walked away to think through the feedback you can’t let your brain get away from you. As psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen explains, our brains love to overgeneralize.

If your brain makes you worry that ‘people’ will judge you, ‘everyone’ will think badly, or ‘someone’ will yell at you, ask yourself who, exactly?

Specify who or what you’re worried about. Write down the exact names of who is impacted by this issue (in most cases it’s not ‘everyone’ but more likely just ‘one’ person.)

Do: Ask for explicit feedback and clarification

Instead of running back to the safety of your office after getting negative feedback, ask for more. Once you’ve cleared your head go back and think through the main points. Do they make sense or was it completely unexpected?

If you felt like it came out of nowhere, circle back and ask for clarification. Was there something you missed? Were expectations not properly set? In most cases, the person who gave you the feedback will appreciate the effort you took in following up.

Do: Set expectations for what kind of feedback you’re looking for

One of the easiest ways for good feedback to turn bad is when expectations aren’t aligned. If I send you a wireframe when you’re expecting a pixel-perfect mockup, we’re probably going to have some words.

One of the best ways to do this is to use the 30/90 rule. Are you asking for feedback at 30% done (i.e. structural changes, broad feedback, angle)? Or are you asking at 90% (i.e. right before you’re ready to go to production)?

Whether positive or negative, feedback is the best way to grow, improve, and learn

In electrical engineering, negative feedback is when part of a system’s output is fed back into it and reduces the fluctuations in future output. In other words, it’s a balancing measure that keeps a system stable and in one place.

However, in the workplace, negative feedback has the opposite effect.

Rather than keep you still, it helps you grow, learn, and improve. When you feed criticism and negative feedback into your business or personal skills, you’re giving yourself everything you need for exponential growth.