How do I give negative feedback without making people defensive?

Occasionally my readers will send me requests for topics they would like to see me write about on my blog. The following is a question from a reader.

Photo Credit: Pexels

Photo Credit: Pexels

Dear Tara,

I’m looking at a new job promotion in a leadership role. At this time I feel I need help learning how to speak to people respectfully and without sounding bossy. To be honest, I am scared people won’t listen to me when I try to help them make their jobs better.


Compassionate Leader

Dear Compassionate,

Congratulations on taking the next step in your career! It is wonderful that you have such a big heart and you want to help develop your employees so they can succeed in their roles. A lot of times we worry about sounding bossy or disrespectful because we have had managers who made us feel disrespected when we have received negative feedback in the past. This is referred to as a fear based leadership style. It is very hierarchical and designed to make employees produce quality work out of fear of being reprimanded. It doesn’t leave employees feeling motivated, uplifted, or competent.

There are many things you can do to create a different workplace experience for your staff. The first thing is to recognize that you don’t want to lead in this way, which you have already done by asking for help. Maya Angelou once said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” It sounds like you want to make people feel respected, comfortable talking to you and asking for help, and motivated to improve upon their work.

If you continue to base your leadership style off of your past experiences and you focus on being afraid of being bossy, then your natural response will be to avoid communication until it becomes a big enough issue that the conversation will be punitive for the employee. Ultimately a self-fulfilling prophecy for the exact scenario you want to avoid. This is a common occurrence when we have the best intentions and we don’t have the framework, the experience, or the skills to be able to change the way we want to be perceived. That also means you have to be willing to go outside of your comfort zone (and stay there consistently, especially when it gets really uncomfortable) to initiate these difficult conversations.

One way you can consistently communicate with your staff is through scheduling regular, expected times to meet with them. This can be done through team meetings after the completion of a project to evaluate its effectiveness, monthly staff meetings to discuss whether or not monthly goals have been met, and one on one meetings with your team leaders. If you have a large staff, it may not be possible to meet one on one with employees often (such as monthly) so in these cases, you will want to make sure you call meetings with them for positive reinforcement just as much as constructive feedback. You will know best what will work within your organization for delivering feedback when it comes to how it is delivered and how often. The important part is that you manage expectations for how this will be done so it is a habit and becomes part of the culture.

If you are working your way up through the company it is also highly likely that you have a good understanding of the work your employees are being expected to do. It’s important as a leader to be able to put yourself in their shoes and see the situation through their eyes. If you aren’t sure about what it is like to be in their shoes then it doesn’t hurt to ask open ended questions to clarify where a breakdown in the system, the employee’s education, or the communication may be occurring. This will also help you collect more information about the situation so you can give feedback that is both relevant and easy to understand by your employee.

If you aren’t in the habit of initiating a conversation where you give feedback, it can be difficult to change for both you and your employees. Since you are planning to start a new position in management, it will be important for you to manage expectations from the beginning about how you want to communicate with your employees. This means you will want to encourage employees to evaluate their progress during and at the end of specific projects as well as after taking on any new responsibilities. Get in the habit of making everything an opportunity for growth, development, and learning by including questions like “What are some areas for improvement or growth?” or “What can we learn from this experience?” The intention behind those questions doesn’t have to be pointing out when something goes wrong.

Lastly, you want to assume your employees didn’t wake up that morning and say, “I hope I go to work today and do a really bad job so my boss yells at me.” Give them the benefit of the doubt, allow them to try to improve upon the situation, and communicate openly along the way so they can be successful in turning the situation around before it gets to a point where you have to give a warning or document that they are not performing. Then if you do have to get to a point where you need to write up an incident, it will not catch them off guard and trigger a defensive response.

Want more confidence tips and communication strategies delivered straight to your inbox each week? Join my list so you don't miss any updates.