Delivering negative feedback in a positive manner

We no longer “shoot the messenger” who delivers bad news, but you wouldn’t know that judging by how uncomfortable some managers are when delivering negative feedback. We have found that managers who use our practical, easy-to-follow, three-part process are able to gain a better perspective on this vital aspect of successful staff interactions.

But first, before you consider this process, you need to reframe your own thoughts to view feedback as a communication tool whose purpose is to help your staff member or colleague grow professionally. In other words, your intention isn’t to insult or demean another individual, or to let off steam; it’s to encourage more appropriate behavior. When you approach a sensitive discussion with this in mind, you will be better able to put the person at ease, and he or she will not instinctively freeze you out, thereby preventing any meaningful discussion.

The three-part process of giving effective negative feedback consists of (1) setting the stage, (2) delivering the message, and (3) following up.

Setting the Stage

You need to prepare so you can anticipate the other person’s reactions. Get your facts straight. Did a colleague fail to follow a new procedure that your department instituted? Before you have this conversation, verify that he or she was not on vacation during that department’s training session. Did your staff member not follow the proper protocol in shutting off a complex machine? You would be wise to check if an emergency occurred on the floor that caused him or her to respond immediately to the crisis.

Pick the right time. Your message will be more powerful if it is delivered up front as soon as possible after an incident has occurred, unless the incident has caused one or both parties to become too angry to hold a productive conversation. The more time that goes by between the issue that caused you concern and your comments about it, the less impact your discussion will have. Not only will the other person think it can’t be all that serious or you would have said something sooner, it’s human nature to move on to other concerns, especially in an environment where resident care and comfort present constant challenges.

Picking the right time also means approaching the person when he or she is not in the middle of a crisis (or crises) so that full attention can be paid to what you are saying. If possible, leave a note that you would appreciate a few minutes of time at the start of his or her shift. If a staff meeting is scheduled in the near future, ask if a few minutes could be spared beforehand, or after, to discuss a matter.

In your mind, run through what you want to say so you can present your case clearly and concisely. Anticipate what the other party will say in response. The more specific you are, the better. Think about potential questions and prepare answers. Consider: Are you dealing with a colleague with a fragile ego? If so, prepare your statement in a way that will allow him or her to maintain self-esteem. Be diplomatic so the recipient doesn’t become defensive. Are you dealing with someone from a different culture, perhaps with limited comprehension of the language? If so, the issue may be one that is appropriately addressed on an organizational level, which requires you to present your case to administrative personnel. Last but not least, understand the situation from the other person’s point of view. Would you have behaved the same way under the same circumstances?

Delivering the Message

Let’s assume that you have taken into consideration all of the above and are ready to deliver the feedback. If possible, use the “sandwich approach”—start by saying something positive, follow up with your real message, and end with something positive (for example, your confidence in the recipient’s ability to turn the situation around).

Practice the basics of good communication: describe, then observe and listen. Remember, your aim is to have the recipient take responsibility and become motivated to change his or her behavior, and this outcome occurs when people do not feel boxed into a corner. Therefore, avoid words that imply judgment, such as “weak,” “strong,” “incompetent,” or “indecisive.”Whenever possible, hold this conversation in person. Telephones and e-mails are indispensable tools and serve many communication needs, but they don’t deliver the same impact as a face-to-face meeting. You can “read” the other person’s facial expressions and body language to determine if your message is getting through, and you can adjust your words accordingly.

Sometimes it’s helpful to ask, “Do you know why I wanted to meet with you?” If the recipient responds by alluding to something about the issue, you can have him or her speak first. Deal in facts, not opinions. Having prepared beforehand, you should be able to present facts and figures supporting your point of view. Stay calm and in control of your emotions so the situation does not escalate into a shouting match, or its opposite—two sides shutting down.

If the recipient has no idea what your concern is, present your case with the supporting facts. Always give the person a chance to explain his or her position; as previously stated, when informed about the reasons behind the behavior, you may view things differently. Since the goal of this feedback is to improve performance (with your staff member) or alter a particular behavior in a colleague, it’s important to stress that your aim is to make both of you more effective at delivering superior care and service to residents.

Following Up

Once you have conveyed negative feedback, it’s important to offer support to ensure that a behavioral change occurs. Depending on the situation, you may ask a colleague to revisit the issue at a mutually agreed upon time or, if it involves a staff member, put into place periodic checkpoints so that you can determine if the timeline for change is proceeding on pace.

Remember, providing negative feedback in a positive manner is a skill, not an innate ability. And the more you do it, the better you’ll get at it. Start practicing in low-risk, low-stress situations, and then when you do address an issue of great importance to you or to your facility, you’ll feel as confident as a professional diplomat.

Yael Sara Zofi is the Founder and CEO of AIM Strategies® (Applied Innovative Management®), a New York City–based consulting firm focused on bringing applied behavioral science techniques to managing businesses in healthcare and other fields. Before establishing AIM Strategies® in 1998, she was the Vice-President of Performance Management, Leadership, and Organizational Development for JPMorgan. As a Professor at New York University, she designed and taught the courses “Leadership and Business Transformation,” “Leadership and Management Skills,” and “Management Principles and Ethical Practices.” Susan Meltzer has worked in the HR field for more than 25 years. She specializes in recruitment, training, and employee relations

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