Why Negative Feedback Is Always Positive

The most destructive power in your organization is what goes unspoken. Disappointment and resentment, when unexpressed, can shut down relationships and the ability to exchange crucial information. That’s where mistakes happen and trust and productivity are threatened.

By coming to terms with the inescapable, and undeniably painful, fact that surfacing these issues is going to be viewed as criticism, you’re building into your team the ability to self-regulate and take care of issues as they come up. In the absence of this mechanism, resentment and hurt feelings can spiral out of control and result in real problems.

Step one is to face the fact that while this isn’t always pleasant, negative feedback is essential. As a leader, you have to embrace the idea that the initial negative reaction you may get from staff when you bring up these topics is to be expected. As part of this first step, you must invite negative feedback about where you lose influence. Do you know with certainty how staff feel when they have a meeting with you, or one where you will be attending, coming up? If not, ask someone (a coach, hr or other trusted advisor) to conduct an anonymous survey with your staff about this and find out: When they interact with you, what do they value most? What is it that you do that detracts from your interaction? With them individually and with the group at large?

The next thing is to identify when a difficult behavior or habit (which may be subtle and nuanced) is affecting your team. A surly attitude, certain body language and facial expressions – these can all create a creeping negativity, whey that aren’t addressed. It’s your role as leader to call them to attention, with as much skill and clarity as possible.

Here’s the payoff. After the initial negative charge has been allowed to dissipate and people have had a chance to process and reflect on what they’ve heard, there’s an opportunity for real growth and for people to have new insights into what isn’t working and how they can translate those insights into action. No small thing, this also gives your team the opportunity to transform the fear and discomfort of things that may have gone unsaid, into deeper, more honest connections with one another.

The degree to which these outcomes are positive is embedded in the intentions of everyone who is part of the conversation. You need to set it up so that the backdrop of the conversation is the value this process brings for an evolving relationship, based on trust and mutual respect – even when there isn’t agreement on the issues.

For example I have a client who has the opportunity to become the President of his company. As his coach I’ve spent some time defining his areas of weakness so we can surface issues that may be holding him back. As part of this process, I facilitated a meeting with his six direct reports to provide their feedback based on his communication style with them: I want to hear where I’m not effective with you. When we started this session, nervous silence filled the room. Most people have zero experience providing and receiving negative feedback to anyone, let alone their boss, even if it has been directly requested.

As the group began to share their experiences with him, his initial reaction was painful. He felt attacked, assaulted and embarrassed. He said later that he didn’t know how he could look them in the eye, or lead them, ever again.

When we left at the end of that day I told his team: “You just gave him an amazing gift. The gift of honesty.”

Fast-forward two weeks. There’s been a shift, a release of tension from his team and a sense of relief from my client, because now he has real knowledge about something he had only a vague awareness of before. Now he’s in a position to do something about it. There is always some relief in dealing with the enemy you can see, because the one that is hidden has so much more power.

Either way, you’re going to feel the pain. Do you want to do it by avoiding the truth and perpetuating the issues that are hurting you? Or by dealing with it up front, and getting it out of the way so you can move forward towards your goals without being held back by the power of the unspoken?