Noted French writer Francois de la Rochefoucauld (1613-1680) said “Few people have the wisdom to prefer the criticism that would do them good, to the praise that deceives them.”

via Wikimedia Commons (United States public domain)

Many managers find it uncomfortable to give negative feedback or to criticise one of their team, but it is a key part of a manager’s responsibilities if s/he is to ensure that unwanted behaviour does not become seen as being acceptable.

Before launching in to a formal session of “constructive criticism” the manager must ask himself whether it is really necessary because it is a serious departure from what is acceptable, or is just a minor blip in normal behaviour. Perpetual need for negative feedback with the same individual means that more serious action may be needed, or if needed regularly to many of the team members it suggests that there are deeper issues with what values have been established as acceptable in the group. It is far better to work on having your team members buy into the values and culture (sum of behaviours), than to spend a great deal of your time chastising your people.

via Wikimedia Commons/United States public domain

If negative feedback on behaviour is needed, it is important that it is done as close as possible to the occurrence if it is to have any real impact, but it must be handled and delivered in a way that ensures it is effective in driving behavioural change and does not demotivate the receiver. It must be specific and relevant as if you are too tough, emotions and resentment will over-ride common sense and hence learning, and if too vague the message will not be understood.

Here are some ways to help handle it.

1. Make sure you have all the facts before giving your feedback.

There is nothing more demotivating to a subordinate than to have you rush in with negative feedback if you are not 100% sure of the real facts. It not only undermines your position of authority, as your team member can divert discussion by correcting you, but also questions your thoroughness as a manager by being seen to act on misinformation. Ask questions not only about what actually happened, but also what the person was trying to accomplish by their actions and therefore why did they act the way that they did. Remember that you will be giving “constructive criticism” of the actual behaviour that you do not want to see repeated, rather than of the individual.

2. Make sure that they accept ownership.

You must ensure that they understand what happened and that they have ownership of the situation before giving your feedback. If they do not accept that they were at fault, or if they blame it on factors outside their control, you will have little chance of getting them to accept that they will need to change their behaviour in the future.You need to focus them down to their own actual actions and accept the results. You should also not try and “sugar coat” the situation by telling them how wonderful they are despite this slip. You are there to be specific about this instance and not about their past performances, and the oft recommended style of “You are a really punctual person, but you need to shower more than once a week” is only for weak beginners.

3. Don’t state the obvious.

If the subordinate states that s/he knows that he messed up in this instance, there is not much point going on about the fact that s/he did so. It is better to be able to discuss why it happened and what caused the “lapse” rather than harping on about the error. Smart people actually do know when they make mistakes, and your job as a manager is to make sure that they learn from them and don’t repeat them. Continuing to beat them around the head after they have truly acknowledged their transgression has a diminishing return, so you should move on as soon as you see that they fully understand why the behaviour is unacceptable.

4. Praise can be public but criticism cannot.

Berating someone in front of others is generally more negative on the manager than on the employee. It suggests that you either cannot control yourself or that you struggle with confronting someone in a one-on-one situation. You must privately ask the person to come to your office and have the behavioural adjustment conversation behind closed doors. Sticking your head out of your office door into an open plan area and screaming “John get your arse in here immediately” won’t cut it, as you want them to focus on the message that you deliver, rather than on the embarrassment that you are handing out.

5. With criticism, one size doesn’t fit all.

You have to know the person, and understand how they will take criticism before you start. The highly sensitive and more junior staff will need to be handled differently than the tougher and more experienced ones. It is important that you remember that your goal is to stop unwanted behaviour rather than to just berate someone for their faults. You are trying to build a person’s usefulness and not stifle their creativity, rather than get them to a point where they are scared of making a mistake and therefore will not try anything new ever again.

As Winston Churchill (1874-1965) said

“Criticism may not be agreeable but it is necessary. It fulfils the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.”

Author: Birtish Government; via Wikimedia Commons



  1. Simon says:

    Love the comment about “weak beginners”. When I started out in the business world, working for the company then known as Andersen Consulting, we were required to give three good bits of feedback before anything critical could be said. As a consequence you could count the “Thank you for arriving on time (1), you are looking smart and professional (3), and I am sure that you are really trying (3)” before all hell would be let loose…

  2. leshayman says:

    Simon, I went through similar training when i started in management. It took me a long time to realise it didn’t really work, and that it was more effective for all concerned to just be specific about the behaviour in question.

  3. Pingback: Top Tips for Giving Negative feedback «

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