Turning Negative Feedback Into a Positive

Nobody likes to receive negative feedback. Even when what you’re saying is true, there’s always that undeniable sting that goes with receiving any sort of negative feedback. Done poorly, negative feedback can cause loss of morale and can even prompt even talented employees to leave the organization.

Negative feedback is necessary, but not evil

But the thing is, negative feedback is necessary. Nobody does a perfect job and there is ALWAYS room for improvement. There are always things that can be done better, more efficiently and more effectively. Negative feedback is what makes everyone realize those gaps and opportunities for improvement. A Forbes article puts it best — “Feedback is a manager’s best tool, but it’s only effective when it’s delivered properly.”

Feedback is part of what drives an organization forward. The consistent flow of an exchange of ideas, the brainstorming and the launching of initiatives to make things better and more efficient — these are spurred by feedback and these are what keeps a company going.

Unfortunately, negative feedback has been demonized of late, especially with the advent of cyberbullying on social media. Now, even legitimate criticism can be branded as “hateful” behavior or be seen as “bashing.” This kind of culture has unfortunately permeated into corporate workplaces, where bosses and leaders can become hesitant to provide feedback lest they be misinterpreted. As a result, many organizations miss out on opportunities to grow, develop, and become more relevant.

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Turning negative feedback into a plus

Negative feedback doesn’t always have to be just “negative”. Negative feedback should be redefined in our workplace mindsets to be instructional, a stepping stone to get to the next level of excellence. It’s important to realize that there are much more pros than cons when negative feedback and criticism are done and delivered correctly.

To that end, here are a few ways to reap the positive benefits of negative feedback:

1. Foster an environment that isn’t filled with negative feedback.

In the same way it’s easy to dish out praise, it’s also pretty easy to lay on negative feedback. The goal is to create an environment in the work place where both aren’t common place. A work environment that is filled with complaints and needless criticism can become counter-productive, and negatively impact productivity. Instead, foster a workplace where both positive and negative feedback are given. And make every comment count. Don’t just hand out downers — explain mistakes and offer solutions and suggestions on how these can be prevented in the future. In the same vein, don’t be hollow with your praise — seek out your employees’ and teammates’ accomplishments and congratulate them on a job well done.

An Inc.com story cites IBM executive Dan Cerutti as saying, “I try to give seven positive reinforcements for every negative comment.” This is a perfect example of making employees and co-workers feel worthy and valued. Giving both positive and negative feedback shows that you pay attention to what is being done, and that you aren’t just flexing your administrative muscles (as is the case with bad managers who like to go on “power trips” and put people down). People also are put in a better position to realize what they’re doing wrong and take steps to correct it.

2. Do away with padding negative feedback with false positives

There is such a thing as a “feedback sandwich”, where criticism is sandwiched by compliments (compliment – criticism – compliment). More often than not, the positives are hollow or inconsequential, but they usually mistakenly understood to be (along with the criticism) as a sign of a job well done. The takeaway lessons from negative feedback are meaningless and cannot be absorbed and understood properly if there is always an attempt to pad it with meaningless praise. Concentrate on giving concise, helpful and constructive criticism, so the recipient doesn’t miss the point you want to make, and set a separate time for any commendations you’d also like to give.

Remember, the rule of thumb here is that honesty is the best policy. Don’t mince around words or try to “beautify” or rationalize a mistake. Call a spade a spade. Be clear (but not cruel, of course) and get straight to the heart of the matter.

3. Don’t criticize for the sake of criticism

In the same vein, don’t just say to someone, “You’re doing a bad job.” It’s vague and ambiguous and helps no one. Any negative feedback and criticism must be as detailed as possible, so that the recipient knows exactly what he or she did wrong. And if you can, add suggestions or recommendations on how improvements can be made and how mistakes can be avoided in the future.

Let’s say you have an employee who’s always late in meetings. Besides pointing that mistake out, explain the repercussions of that kind of behavior, such as it being an indication of a lack of respect of other people’s time, or that it wastes resources and effort for people to re-explain things to a latecomer. Not to mention the effect of being late in especially important meetings, such as those with clients and customers, who could very well dump you for the competition just because of an issue like tardiness.

4. Make negative feedback for the recipient’s ears only

Few things are more demoralizing and demeaning in the workplace than having to be dressed down in front of co-workers and colleagues. Make sure that any negative feedback or criticism you give is recorded, but also confidential. There is nothing to be gained by making someone else lose face in front of their peers. Even if a mistake is done by a group, the better thing to do would be to talk to them one by one in solo and private feedback sessions.

5. Always take the time to listen

Giving negative feedback isn’t a talk-down kind of conversation. Some mistakes happen because of circumstances outside the influence of the people involved. Always give people their fair shake and allow them to explain themselves. It’s an important step in the learning process for people to let themselves be heard out. Learn to empathize and step into other people’s shoes. That way, you can put yourself in a much better position to help that person move from being criticized to learning and growing from his or her mistake.

Another part of this is being able to receive negative feedback yourself. While it’s important to not let the issue at hand be sidetracked because of criticism leveled against you. Focus on the issue at hand, and then set another time and place to tackle other issues, including any negative feedback about you.

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Responding to negative feedback

Now let’s go to the other side of the fence — it’s never easy to receive negative feedback. But try to see things on a bigger scale and work towards getting past hurt pride. With the right mindset, negative feedback can spur you on become better, to improve and grow, and allow you to tap into ideas, opportunities and pathways for development that could otherwise have remained undiscovered.

1. Simmer down and think things over

One of the most common immediate reactions when receiving negative feedback is anger. While that is understandable, you also need to take a step back, calm down and think rationally and logically before reacting or saying anything.

Psychologist William Swann, writing for the American Psychological Association, says that negative feedback causes people to “suffer the severe disorientation and psychological anarchy that occurs when [they] recognize that [their] very existence is threatened.”

Especially if you think the criticism is unwarranted, it’s important to think things over so that you can better formulate a defense of yourself. Never give in to these rush of emotions (you know, like punching a wall), as these help nobody and adversely affect you.

2. Try to understand feedback, get as much details as possible

In the same way that criticism must always be detailed and specific, it’s important to recipients of negative feedback to try to get as much as those details as possible. It’s difficult to take any criticism or feedback into account if you don’t understand it to begin with. Get second, third and fourth opinions on the matter, so that you can formulate a more objective idea of what is wrong (or if there is something wrong in the first place) and what improvements can be made.

3. Don’t take it personally

In an article by the Harvard Business Review, a study shows that people generally tend to avoid a person (or persons) who give them negative feedback. True negative feedback and constructive criticism is never personal and should never be taken as some sort of personal affront. Research in the HBR article suggests that this kind of attitude causes a decline in performance.

>> Recommended reading: Utilizing Mental Models to Improve Business Innovation

Equipping the right tools for feedback

A large part of what should drive feedback and constructive criticism is data. Every organization should have the necessary tools to collect and collate the needed data in order to determine points of improvement for people and for groups and the organization as a while. Tools like Runrun.it’s Smart Time Tracking tool not only provides a means for timekeeping, it is also capable of helping leaders and managers track how time is being used, like how much time is being allotted to a certain task, or how much time is spent for meetings.

This kind of data, along with a myriad of other pertinent organization data generated by the Dashboard tool, can significantly help a company see both its strong points and weak points. As such, these tools are essential in keeping an organization on its toes, always on the lookout for points of improvement and opportunities for growth and efficiency. To see how Runrun.it’s tools can help improve your operations, check out the free trial here.

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