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Why Negative Feedback Is A Gift

Giving negative feedback. We hate it, don’t we? Most people feel it’s one of the toughest jobs a manager has. We imagine there’s going to be this huge meltdown, aggression, shouting. “I don’t do that”. but actually, most of us LIKE receiving feedback. A 2014 assessment looking at employee attitudes towards “positive” and “corrective” feedback by Zenger/Folkman found that 57% of respondents actually preferred receiving corrective feedback over positive feedback. And, when given properly, 92% believed “negative” feedback helped to improve performance.

“We all need people who will give us feedback. That’s how we improve.” — Bill Gates

The problem is I still don’t think most of us have got onboard with the whole radical candour thing. We need to realise that by being open and honest with feedback we are trying to support others to become better, it’s not a way of making them feel bad, or point out their failures just for the fun of it. The habit of saying nothing starts early. We’re told from a young age: “If you have nothing nice to say, say nothing.” We need to unlearn this lesson to help us help each other.


At Peer1 when I worked there we brought in a rule for the executive team (and it then cascaded down) which said there would be no triangulation. In so many companies you have third-party conversations. You and I should really be having a difficult conversation but we’re not, we’re each talking to someone else about it. How pointless is that? So, at Peer1 what we said was that this would no longer happen, that there would be no triangulation, no third party conversations. If somebody comes to me and says blah blah blah blah blah blah, I would then say “great, you’ve got that off your chest we now need to facilitate a conversation with the other person, or I’m going to tell that person about this conversation in 72 hours, to make sure you’ve talked to them”. It was a fantastic rule. It meant that we had an explicit agreement at executive team level for no gossip, no third party conversations, no politics and then we rolled that down to the directors.

I’ve mentioned that exact rule on a number of occasions at speaking engagements and a couple of people have taken it onboard, realised it would get to the heart of the problem they were having in their business and implemented it. They’ve then come up to me two years later to tell me it’s changed their company.

    Radical candour, that ability to give and receive direct feedback is so powerful in business. Honesty. Transparency. These are all things Kim Scott talks about in her great book — Radical Candor: Be a Kickass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity. How we can use honesty to build better work relationships and better businesses. You know I’m going to give you this negative feedback because I want you to succeed. It’s a good thing. She says radical candour is at the intersection of direct feedback and personal caring. If I care about you but don’t give you the direct feedback then I am guilty of ruinous empathy.

    Because, if Bob’s not doing a good job and nobody tells Bob he’s not doing a good job, how does he know? Bob may not know that he’s not doing these things right. It might not be that Bob is actually incompetent, it might be that if Bob gets some feedback he can fix it.

    I have a great example of this is from the early period of scaling up Rackspace. We had got to about 15 people in the UK team so we decided to come up with a list of behaviours that would make a great Racker. This was the precursor to the core values work we eventually did. Then every quarter all staff would rate everyone else on a scale of 1 to 5, based on these behaviours. The person with the highest score was named employee of the quarter and won a weekend away with their partner. I would then have a word with the two employees at the bottom of the list. Who was bottom was never made public, it would be a private conversation between us. The rule was that they could not be bottom two quarters running, so we had to work out a plan to get them off the bottom or out of the business.

    Phone image

    In one case, there was this person who came bottom and the feedback was that it was because he would never answer the phones. Everyone moaned about him not answering the phones on the IT support desk (but of course they never actually told him) so they marked him down for this. The first he knew about the issue was when I explained the reason for him coming bottom. Armed with this direct and constructive feedback he becomes a man possessed with his phone answering. Moving through to the next quarter results and this person came top of the survey. In fact, everyone else on the team was complaining because they now never got to answer a call!

    This, to me, just seems simple. How does anyone know they’re doing X, Y or Z unless we tell them? How can they/we fix it if they don’t know! You have to give them feedback otherwise how will they ever be as good as they can be? Tell me I am great and I will change nothing, so only criticism has the power to change.

    Take high performing sports teams, they are trying to be the best, and they do that through constant feedback and review. They video their matches, they wear GPS tags, they review how many plays in a match, how much possession, how many tackles, who did what. They rerun the tape in order to give feedback and get better. In organisations we don’t do that. We hire people and sometimes we don’t give them any feedback at all. I’ve been in situations where that’s caused frustration. Staff don’t feel like they’re progressing or moving forward. They don’t know if they are doing a good job or not. Here is how the Warriors do their halftime tape rerun:

    Yes, people can react badly. The feedback isn’t always delivered well. They don’t always like the feedback, they get defensive, angry, go on the attack, cast blame… but if you can culturally get passed that and build your organisation on a footing of feedback and transparency then that’s the way to a better, more efficient team.

    This all needs to start from the top. CEOs, execs, managers need to build a level of transparency within the organisation They need to make others feel safe enough to give their honest opinions. Make it the norm.

    “Make feedback normal. Not a performance review.” — Ed Batista

    One tip — avoid the sh*t sandwich! Why is it I hear people still say you should start and end on good news, pop the bad stuff in the middle. NO! If you do it that way they won’t remember the bit in the middle. And, let’s be honest, you’re probably only doing that to make yourself feel better. One simple trick to make the delivery of feedback easier is to ask first. Can I give you some feedback? They may say no, but in my experience, they say yes and are less defensive.

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    And, if someone does come to you with criticism, remember, you may not agree with the feedback — sometimes people 100% disagree with the feedback — but this person would not have said what they’ve said if it wasn’t true for them. You need to own it. Something you did or said made them feel the way they did. Say thank you for the feedback, it’s a gift.

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