People tiptoe around giving feedback that others may take as negative. All types of leadership “wisdom” is provided on how to give negative feedback but unfortunately many if them only diminish the leader’s credibility by advocating the leader to play games rather than be honest and direct.

Perhaps one of the dumbest techniques on how to give negative feedback is the feedback sandwich. Tell the person something good, tell them what you have to say that is somewhat negative and then end with another layer of praise or encouragement. This is like confronting a barking dog that is simultaneously wagging its tail. Which end do you believe? When the feedback sandwich is used, the follower’s antenna immediately raises. Perhaps that is because the follower so rarely hears positive information or perhaps he or she is attuned to the technique. As a result, the follower seldom listens to the positives the leader is spewing. The follower is waiting for the other shoe to drop and when it does they hang onto every word. Finally when the last slice of praise is added to the sandwich, the follower has tuned out as he or she tries to process what they have just learned. Only after they get away from the meeting do they realize that the leader was dishonest with them in trying to give them praise when what the leader really wanted to do was tell them something was wrong.

So how should a leader provide feedback that is not positive? First recognize this is a three-part process and the three parts have different purposes. The parts must occur in the proper sequence to have any chance of success. The first part is sharing the negative data and letting the person process the data and situation. The second part is problem solving. The third part is to ensure follow-up happens and to begin to discuss what was learned out of the situation.

Part 1: Sharing Negative Feedback
Here are a few steps that help maintain the leader’s credibility and integrity in the middle of providing tough feedback.
1. First be honest in what you are about to say.
“I need to be talk with you about something and you are probably not going to like what I have to tell you.’
2. Second, get to you point immediately.
“Here is what I need to share with you….”
Obviously this is a place to pick words carefully so that they are objective and descriptive in nature, not emotional or blaming.
3. Third, provide some time to process the information.
“I know this is out of the blue and maybe a surprise to you and you probably need some time to get your thoughts together. I am interested in your analysis of the situation but most importantly I am interested in what we can do to correct or fix what went wrong.”
4. Fourth, set up a time to talk.
“Let’s set a time to discuss this in-depth after you have had time to get your thoughts together”
Do not wait very long for the discussion; an hour or so should suffice. Also, the leader has to be sure the follow-up conversation occurs. If it does not the leader will be viewed as having conducted a drive-by shooting.
5. Finally, offer your assistance. I want to be of assistance in helping fix this issue but we need to talk about if and where I can be of help. Lets discuss this when we talk in (an hour).

Part 2: Problem Solving
How the follow-up (problem solving) meeting is conducted becomes very important.

1. Greet and get to the point
2. Ask for their analysis and listen to what they have to say. Talk only when you need clarification
3. Deflect blame
Often the person will want to point the finger at another person or unit. Let the person know that you want his or her analysis of the actions that took place but you are not interested in placing blame and you do not want him or her focused on that either. Explain that your goal at this point is to correct the situation and even create something better out of this situation.
4. Push to create positive out of negative by discussing objectives of what a positive solution would look like. Ask for their ideas on this and incorporate them as appropriate.
5. Agree on a plan and roles. Ask what steps they think should occur to correct the issue.
6. Discuss follow-up times and select one or more as needed by the actions taken.
7. Now encourage
The time for encouragement and reassurance come in the follow-up meeting after the employee has had a chance to process the true message (you screwed up). At this time the leader can tell the employee that he or she has a good reputation (if that is true) and that the plan that he or she is implementing should resolve the issue. Let them know things go wrong sometime and the only uncorrectable error is not fixing something when it does go wrong.

Part 3: Follow-up
1. Meet with the person at the identified times to determine how the agreed to plan is being implemented.
2. At the last meeting (if there are more than one) talk about what was learned out of the situation. This discussion is not appropriate at the either of the first two meetings. This discussion should occur after the ship has been righted and things are once again under control. Then, and only then, will the follower be in a position to objectively evaluate what could have been done differently and what they learned. Once again this is a time for encouragement around those learnings.

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