Originally published on March 5, 2018 on HBR.org.
In my role as a leadership coach, I consistently hear my clients say that they crave negative feedback from their managers in order to improve in their jobs, grow their careers, and achieve better business results. However, when it comes to soliciting negative feedback, they find that their managers would rather dismiss, deny, or delay it rather than speak directly, truthfully, and immediately about what isn’t working and what needs to change.
That makes sense when you consider what may be at risk when giving (and receiving) negative feedback. In her article, “How to Give Negative Feedback When Your Organization is Nice”, my colleague Jennifer Porter cites barriers to giving negative feedback that include hurt feelings; a desire to maintain professionalism (rather than having things get “messy”); a lack of role models for giving negative feedback; the prospect of an emotional outburst; and not wanting to jeopardize the “nice” culture.
Additional research from University of California Professors Naomi Eisenberger and Matthew Lieberman, and Purdue University Professor Kipling D. Williams, shows that negative feedback can be experienced as a form a social rejection (“You’re telling me I’m not good enough and that I don’t belong here” is one frequent interpretation), and that social rejection hurts emotionally and physically. Few managers want to cause their direct reports pain, and potentially risk an emotional outburst, loss of commitment, or even retaliation.
Nevertheless, when people don’t receive useful negative feedback, they can’t grow. According to authors Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman in their article, “Your Employees Want the Negative Feedback You Hate to Give”, when asked what was most helpful in their careers, 72% of respondents attributed performance improvement to getting negative feedback from their managers. The same study also showed that managers were reluctant to give negative feedback.
Bill Gates agrees: “We all need people who will give us feedback. That’s how we improve.”
So what do you do if you know that negative feedback is what you need to succeed — and nobody’s talking? Stop asking for negative feedback (you’ve already tried that, right?) and try one of these creative approaches instead:
- Give yourself negative feedback first. According to Wharton professor and author Adam Grant, “When people shy away from giving constructive feedback, it’s often because they’re afraid of hurting your feelings. But if they hear you talk about what you did wrong, the fear melts away.” Start by saying something like, “I know that I tend to work quickly and sometimes overlook important details. I’d like to get better at that. Do you have any thoughts on how I could improve?” And then, once you have them talking, you can ask, “And is there anything else I could be working to improve right now?”
- Make self-improvement a personal commitment — and ask for help. If directly soliciting negative feedback isn’t working, tell your manager that you’ve made a commitment to yourself to improve in three areas this year, and that you’d like her feedback on what one or more of those should be. Ask, “Would you please help me keep the commitment I’ve made to myself?” That way, she can view her feedback as more about helping you make good on a promise, and less about hurting your feelings.
- Reframe negative feedback as a learning opportunity. If your manager, colleague, or client is reticent to offer negative feedback directly, ask, “What is something you think I could learn from you?” It gives the other person a chance to reflect on their own talents and skills (which makes most people feel good), and share their thinking about where they could help you grow — in a nonthreatening context. (If you’re really lucky, they might even ask you, “And what is something you think I could learn from you?” and then you get to give some gentle negative feedback, too.)
- Preemptively minimize the impact of the negative feedback. When people are willing to give negative feedback, they often couch it as “just one little thing — it’s not a big deal” to minimize the impact. You can do that yourself by asking, “If I could change just one small habit, what should it be?” That signals to the other person that they don’t have to minimize, apologize, or put negative feedback in context to make it palatable for you — you’ve done it already.
Managers should be able to give negative feedback, but even if they don’t, you need to learn how to solicit it so that you get the information you need to grow in your job and career.