There’s a reason managers often avoid giving negative feedback—it’s uncomfortable as heck. Learn the secrets to offering constructive advice (hint: it’s not the compliment sandwich).

By Kathleen Murray Harris
Updated: April 22, 2019
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Ted + Chelsea Cavanaugh

Give feedback quickly but not immediately.
Don’t wait for an annual review to call out areas of improvement. Bring attention to issues swiftly so the details are fresh in your minds. A day after an incident is the sweet spot; having a bit of time quells too-hot emotions and lets you prepare and be more thoughtful with your words. “In the moment, both parties will have a stronger, less helpful reaction,” says Jennifer Porter, managing partner of the Boda Group, a leadership-and team-development firm. Annual or quarterly reviews should cover goals and focus on future-looking feedback—for example, what someone needs to do more or less of to advance their career (“If you were to become more proficient in data analytics, I can see you leaping to the next level”).

Remember your intention.
Think about why you want to share feedback in the first place. “You’re doing this because you want to help the person succeed,” says Porter. At the time, it may feel less benevolent than that—you might think you just need to curb bad habits or fix sloppy work—but any kind of feedback helps your team learn and grow. You also want to earn their trust. “If you don’t deliver the feedback, someone else will and might not do as good a job as you would have,” says Freyan Billimoria, director of people operations at Skillshare, an online learning community. During the conversation, express your intention. Say, “I’m telling you this because I care about you, and I want you to be as effective as possible.”

Think about the content, not the delivery.
Many managers worry about how they’re going to soften the blow instead of what they’re going to say, says Porter. “That’s like preparing to give a speech and focusing on what you’ll wear rather than the content of your presentation,” she notes. Ask yourself, “What’s my core message? What do I hope this person takes away from the conversation? What do I want to happen next?” Write down what you’ll say and practice in the shower or on a trusted coworker. Zero in on the behavior or action, rather than discussing feelings, and give concrete examples, like “I noticed you interrupted people six times in that meeting” (versus “You’re being rude to coworkers”).

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Start with a question.
The discussion should be a dialogue, not a monologue. Say, “I’d love to have a conversation with you to share some feedback. Is that OK?” It’s human nature to say yes, but by asking permission, you may strengthen the relationship, says Porter. Another tactic: Have the other person lead the conversation. Say, “I’d love to talk to you about x. What do you think went well? What do you think didn’t?” Give your employee time to respond. “In many cases, they already know where they’re falling short,” says Fran Hauser, author of The Myth of the Nice Girl ($16; amazon.com). “When you frame the conversation as a collaboration instead of a criticism, the tone is more supportive.”

Use fewer words.
Be as specific as possible. Vague or clichéd phrases (“You need to work on your executive presence”) or sugar-coated feedback is confusing for the listener, increasing the likelihood that they’ll miss your point entirely. “If you use 100 words to say someone missed a deadline, you’re overexplaining,” says Porter. And once you load up on filler words and softeners (“I know you’re overworked”), the feedback begins to feel personal and bias can creep in, says Billimoria. Instead, get to the point and mention what you observed. Say, “I noticed we missed the deadline for the last two reports. What happened?”

Don’t water down your message.
The common habit of sandwiching negative feedback between two slices of praise may be instinctive, but it’s one of the biggest mistakes managers make, says Billimoria. Hiding feedback inside throwaway compliments takes the power out of your words. “People see it coming; then they’ll dismiss the positive, wait for the negative, and won’t trust what you have to say,” says Porter. What you can do to be kind but direct: Express the feedback positively, says Hauser. Say, “A lot is going well, but I have constructive feedback on some things that need improvement,” or “I have some advice that might help you.”

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Provide context.
Why do you care if someone delivers work late? Or doesn’t format presentations perfectly? The answers may be obvious to you, but an employee needs to understand the why behind your feedback. Try to place specific notes inside the bigger picture—for example, “When our department is late with work, it affects other teams too,” or “When your financials look misaligned, it can give people a lack of confidence in your numbers.” Explaining why your feedback is important, says Hauser, can make it easier to deliver and hear.

Be empathetic.
Receiving critical comments is hard. “It doesn’t matter how skillful you are at delivering feedback. It still stings,” says Porter. Don’t be overly harsh, listen to the other person’s perspective, and stay calm. Also, avoid the word “you” if you can. “Subtle word choices can make the conversation feel like a dialogue rather than an attack,” says Hauser. For example, instead of saying, “This is what I think you could have done differently,” say, “This is what I think could have been done differently.”

Do it face-to-face.
Delivering tough news via email or phone is tempting, but meeting in person (or via Skype or FaceTime) is more effective, says Hauser. It allows you to read each other’s nonverbal cues and emotional intent. “Being face-to-face is the only way to ensure that the other person can sense your compassion,” says Hauser. Also, if you can’t see your employee, it will be harder to discern whether they’re upset about or even paying attention to what you’re saying. “Sit up straight and maintain eye contact, no matter how difficult it may be,” says Hauser.

Have a follow-up plan.
Close out the conversation with a discussion of next steps. Ask how you can be helpful and decide together when you should talk again (days, weeks, or months later, depending on the issue). Then check in after a day or two to see how the other person is feeling. It’s natural for the feedback receiver to walk away a little wounded from the conversation, even if it was a productive one, says Porter. “You have to give people time to process,” says Billimoria. “The key to strong relationships is looping back.” When you do, you’ll earn trust, which will make sharing feedback the next time easier.

Remember to give ample praise, too.
Make delivering positive feedback part of your routine—don’t just squeeze it into unpleasant conversations. The point is not simply to placate people or give everyone a trophy; positive feedback is a professional-development tool. First of all, it’s constructive—it’s useful for people to know what they’re doing well so they can continue doing it. Second, it helps create a culture that’s more open to and tolerant of feedback, says Porter. Be specific here, too. Say, “I really like the way you handled that challenge,” or “I appreciate that you spoke with other departments to get their buy-in.” And say it often. “For every piece of criticism, you should give at least five pieces of praise,” says Hauser. “This gets people to a place where they are craving feedback.”

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