Negative feedback has the potential to be a gift. In certain industries like medicine or aviation, it could even save lives. It sounds easy, but when mishandled it is also dangerous—it can ruin relationships and destroy confidence. So how can you walk the fine line between giving thoughtful feedback and being a jerk?
First of all, you need to develop the confidence to give negative feedback. Research shows that people with low self-esteem are more likely to withhold negative feedback, especially in face-to-face situations, probably because they want to be liked or are afraid the criticism will be thrown back at them. Another study found that people who are high “self-monitors” (they are very concerned with being socially appropriate) are more likely to “keep mum”—that is, to fail to pass on negative feedback to colleagues, especially if they work in a culture where they feel keeping quiet is the norm.
Paradoxically, it is a selfish act to not give negative feedback to others because you’re afraid of how it might make you look. Put your ego to one side and stop worrying about being popular or trying to be nice. By providing justified negative feedback in an appropriate manner, the recipient benefits, and you will be a more effective colleague and manager. Conversely, if you withhold negative feedback, you’re depriving someone of the pointers they need to improve. And the chances are, they will eventually discover their mistakes and they will realize that you failed to alert them when you had the chance. So your reticence might gain you popularity today, but you are only storing up trouble for yourself tomorrow.
“Destructive criticism” is the term psychologists use for feedback that is delivered with a harsh tone, or that implies the reason for the poor performance is personal characteristics of the recipient that are stable and can’t be changed.
To take an extreme example, imagine an editor telling a contributor: “This article is a joke, it was clearly written by someone who doesn’t have the intellect to form coherent arguments.” Research shows, not surprisingly, that people react to feedback of this kind with anger, a loss of trust in the feedback giver, and by withdrawing from future attempts at better performance.
If you’re a reasonable person, you may reassure yourself that you would never speak that way to someone, but other scholars have warned that the negative effects of destructive criticism are also a risk after what they call “subtly offensive feedback.” This is negative feedback, delivered politely at a superficial level, but which implies indirectly that the recipient has been foolish.
For example, dwelling excessively on minor mistakes, such as a spelling error, sends an implicit message that the feedback recipient is incompetent for not spotting the error. Similarly, saying an error could have been easily solved (e.g. “you could just have used spell checker”) implies the recipient was foolish or didn’t make an effort.
In other words, being polite and avoiding direct remarks about a person’s inherent abilities is not enough—you also need to make sure your feedback doesn’t contain more subtle digs and insults. Before approaching your recipient, it may be helpful to organize your thoughts and to make a list of the feedback you hope to give. Then, make sure that each point, no matter how subtle, can’t be considered a personal dig.
People respond to negative feedback differently, depending on their temperament and beliefs, and this can give us clues about how to frame our criticisms.
In particular, people who see ability as malleable, and whose goals are more about learning and mastery are more likely to respond to (justified) negative feedback in a constructive fashion, such as by addressing their errors or trying harder. They see criticism as a chance to learn.
Conversely, people who see ability as fixed and whose goals are more about demonstrating their competence and achieving a high performance are more likely to respond to negative feedback in an unhelpful way – becoming overly self-focused, resentful and avoidant. These folk interpret negative feedback as saying something fundamental about themselves—“I’m a bad writer/ I’m not intelligent”—which can either trigger a spiraling loss of confidence, or an outright rejection of the feedback: “That jerk doesn’t know what he’s talking about.” The difference here: some people have a “get better” mindset rather then a “be good” mindset (see below).
Although these differences lie in the recipient, we can also frame our feedback to provoke a particular response style. Explaining to someone the modifiable, external factors that contributed to their poor performance (“this article fell short because it wasn’t based on enough research insights”) is more likely to result in them reacting in a constructive way to the criticism, as if their priorities are more about learning than showing how good they are. After all, when you suggest subtle tweaks in the other person’s process it provides an actual next step (“I’ll take better care to conduct more research next time”). However, if you criticize the person’s work ethic, the next step becomes less clear (“I guess I’ll just try harder next time”).
If it’s appropriate in context and not patronizing, you could even try providing explicit reassurances that your negative feedback is not a judgment on the person’s fundamental abilities, combined with practical, tailored steps for improvement (“Although this article is not good enough, this does not mean you are not capable of being a skilled writer. You could improve the article by conducting more research and speaking to more experts in the field”). A recent study found that feedback of this style made recipients feel less bad about themselves, as did acknowledging the effort they’d made.
Other aspects of the feedback can also shape the recipient’s responses–for example, if you emphasize how someone’s underperformance compares to their peers, you risk fostering in them a competitive, performance-oriented mindset. In this state, they are more likely to bristle at your negative criticism.
In fact, the very way that a task is framed in the first place can lay the foundations for how any potential negative feedback will be received. If you assign a task with a “show me what you can do” tone, don’t be surprised if people respond badly when you later point out where they fell short. On the other hand, if you convey the sense that tasks are a chance to learn and develop, then your subsequent feedback, even if negative, is more likely to be interpreted in a open-minded, productive manner.
By being bold and patient enough to give constructive negative feedback to others, we help them help themselves to get better. But more than that, our own behavior contributes to a culture of trust where colleagues don’t just pat each other on the back for jobs well done, they also point out where mistakes are being made and ways to fix them. This way we all improve together.
Dr. Christian Jarrett seeks out exciting new research and showcases its relevance for life. A psychologist turned writer, he’s a senior editor at Aeon. His next book will be about personality change. He is @Psych_Writer on Twitter.