Are We Too Cowardly Or Too Nice To Give Negative Feedback?

negative feedback, corrective feedback, managersYou have probably heard or witnessed colleagues who don’t seem to meet deadlines or are just unpleasant to work with. They might complain about how bad the company is, often have a reason why they just couldn’t get the job done, spend more time doing personal stuff than working, engage in bullying or a variety of other obnoxious behaviours.  On the other hand, sometimes a person just underperforms. This can be due to personal distractions, a lack of understanding, workload overwhelm, a skill mismatch.or some other issue.

Things do need to be said

Performance reviews are often when feedback, positive and negative, are expressed. While this seems like a logical time to discuss an employee’s performance, it might be too late to be of real help. As Josh Leibner writes in, “being direct and open should originate from a desire to improve each other and the organization as a whole.”

We say we want to hear how to improve

Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman have been collecting responses from 889 individuals (49% from US and 51% from outside the US) who report they do want to hear negative feedback. Interestingly, they have not used the term “negative feedback” in the work but are using “corrective feedback.” They define this as “suggestions for improvement, explorations of new and better ways to do things, or pointing out something that was done in a less that optimal way.” Some of their other findings include:
  • People prefer to avoid giving negative feedback
  • 52% preferred corrective feedback
  • 72% reported that their performance would improve if their managers provided corrective feedback
  • 92% agreed “Negative (redirecting) feedback, if delivered appropriately, is effective at improving performance.”

That seems like a good practice so what gets in the way?

Many organizations use some sort of warning or disciplinary system when employees are underperforming. Despite this, many managers are not getting the job done adequately. This leaves the potential for dishonesty, nice-ness or cowardice to limit or even eliminate the conversations entirely.


Accusing someone of cowardice seems old-fashioned but we still think in those terms more often than you may imagine. When we talk about someone having the guts to do something or “man up,” we are talking about avoiding cowardice.. Yet, certain scenarios happen everyday in which managers do not provide negative or corrective feedback.
  • Employee X should already know what to do, even with little to no direction or resources
  • Firing and hiring are a hassle
  • Employee X might get defensive or emotional
  • The work is getting done so no need to make waves


Some managers want to be liked by their employees more than making sure the work gets done. With all of the leadership thought recently about being more empathetic and relational, it may be tempting to not tell a struggling employee they are underperforming. Some possible signs of this are:

  • Employee X is having personal issues and I don’t want to burden him/her
  • Employee X is still new so he/she will learn
  • I don’t want to ruin his/her career
  • I don’t want to hurt Employee X’s feelings

Whether the situation is a mistake or a downward pattern, managers demonstrate how a bad performance is tolerated or rectified. Looking to be liked more than encouraging and facilitating that everyone gets the work done is going to backfire.

People don’t always perform well

It happens and it is uncomfortable to tell someone that he/she is performing poorly. It raises fears about job security and the sense of belonging in the workplace. Are we more invested in being too nice or too cowardly rather than helping someone improve? Join us on Friday, January 24, 2014 on the Twitter chat, #KaizenBiz at 5pm GMT/12pm ET/9am PT

Who is most responsible for giving negative feedback in the workplace?

How does reframing “negative feedback” into positive feedback or corrective feedback enable others to listen?

How does reframing “negative feedback” into a positive dilute it?

How can we avoid being too “nice” or too “cowardly” when giving negative feedback?

How could working with a diverse team or across cultures affect how negative feedback is delivered?

About the author:  Elli St.George Godfrey, founder of Ability Success Growth, executive coach and international expansion consultant, is the host of KaizenBiz. I’m passionate about business becoming a more human-centered place so I host this chat to connect business ideas and develop people.This passion shows up in my work with my clients. Whether you are expanding locally or internationally, Ability Success Growth guides established small to mid-sized business owners and executives to unlock the CEO within during times of transition and growth.


Negative Feedback and Performance: Can You Handle the Truth?

Underpinning the Twitter chat, #KaizenBiz, is the concept of Kaizen. It is embedded in the chat that we are invested in improving our own performance as well as the performance of our businesses and/or divisions (or departments) of organizations. I’ve asked this questions before,

Simply, how do you examine, discuss and implement processes that support each individual in the organization to be more effective?

When I saw the post, “Sometimes Negative Feedback is Best” on HBR, it seemed that adding nuances to feedback could help someone continuously improve their performance. But not everyone can take feedback in and put it to work for them and negative feedback…well, that brings its own dynamics.

Basically, negative feedback isn’t for everyone

The research cited in the post written by Heidi Grant Halvorson starts off with a truism.

“Feedback is essential to for individuals pursuing their goals. Without it, individuals would not know whether, what and how much to invest in their goals.”

Certainly in the context of kaizen, continuously striving to improve does need some kind of structure. However, the research noted that the types of feedback that are most effective depends on whether the receiver is a novice or an expert. According to Stacey Finkelstein of Columbia University and Ayelet Fishbach of University of Chicago, novices responded to feedback that pointed out their strengths and experts responded to feedback that pointed out where they failed.

But there are other things to keep in mind

As anyone who has given, or for that matter, received feedback, it isn’t always done well. And some of us just don’t handle critiques of our performance well either.Think about the high achiever who aims for excellence and expects it to occur in all aspects of his/her life. Anything that is expressed critically gets hyper-scrutiny and the below-par behavior is justified.

But this isn’t really just someone being oversensitive. According to recent research, we react to negative feedback as a threat so we trigger the parts of our brains that manage emotion.While many of us can manage our reactions most of the time, it isn’t that far fetched that we might also react defensively, angrily or resentfully.

So, if we don’t like to hear how our performance is not meeting standards…

There is a reaction to make negative feedback as “nice” as possible. We sandwich our criticism, use words that dilute the meaning of our message or focus on what the person did well and exclude everything else.. We find (or create) extenuating circumstances to excuse ourselves. This undermines our opportunity to learn and grow. Maybe one of our areas we continuously learn is how manage the disappointment and upset that comes from someone rating our performance negatively. How do we examine, discuss and implement processes that support each individual in the organization to be more effective?

How do non-US cultures offer negative feedback in the workplace?

What happens within role of beginner that makes negative feedback so counter-indicated?

What supports the belief that all feedback is useful and desirable?

What makes negative feedback more usable?

If not negative feedback, what alternatives exist to communicate to someone how they can perform more effectively?