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How to Express Negative Feedback: 3 Communication Principles for Managers

How to Express Negative Feedback: 3 Communication Principles for Managers

How should you communicate with your employees during performance evaluations? What’s the best way to communicate with an employee whose performance is lacking?

This is a very typical issue in management.

When communicating with employees, it’s easy to give praise, and no matter how you say it, they’ll be happy. However, it’s much more challenging to give criticism.

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Many managers, in order to avoid conflict, tend to be very tactful and delicately package their critique of an employee’s performance, to the point where the employee can’t even tell they are being criticized.

Employees may have consumed the sugar coating, but they completely missed the underlying message. What should you do? Today, we’ll give you three pieces of advice.

01 – Evaluate the Situation, Not the Person

For example, if you feel that an employee lacks teamwork, if you say directly, “I think you lack teamwork,” you’re evaluating the person. But if you say, “I haven’t seen evidence of teamwork in this particular situation,” you’re evaluating the situation.

“I think you’re not enthusiastic about your work” is evaluating the person. “I haven’t seen enthusiasm in your performance on this urgent project” is evaluating the situation.

What’s the difference between evaluating the person and evaluating the situation?

You may feel that an employee lacks teamwork, but is that really the case? Perhaps the employee doesn’t see it that way. In another situation, they may demonstrate great teamwork.

So, you can’t definitively label them as someone lacking teamwork. You can only say that in a particular situation, they didn’t exhibit enough teamwork, or at least that’s how it appeared to you.

Everyone has self-esteem, and if you outright deny someone’s character, it will likely lead to resistance. So, remember, when delivering negative feedback to an employee: evaluate the situation, not the person.

Never assume that the person is wrong; instead, assume that the person is right, but the situation is what went wrong. This approach applies when giving employees performance ratings as well.

Performance assessments are not about evaluating who the person is; they are about evaluating the actions and outcomes of the employee’s work.

02 – Express Your Feelings, Not Their Motives

Let’s say you feel that a colleague is always acting against you. How should you communicate with them? Saying, “Are you intentionally targeting me during meetings?” is discussing their motives.

Once you start questioning their motives, you essentially question the person. You immediately turn them into your adversary. What should you do instead?

You can say, “I feel like I’m being targeted.” This is expressing your feelings.

“I feel like I’m being targeted” and “Are you targeting me?” might seem similar, but there’s a significant difference. When you talk about someone else’s motives, you have no evidence.

You say they are targeting you, but only they themselves know whether they are targeting you or not. Even if you present 100 instances to prove that they are targeting you, they can still deny it, saying, “I’m not targeting you.” Therefore, questioning someone’s motives is pointless. However, when you express your feelings like, “I feel like I’m being targeted,” it’s different.

Your feelings cannot be refuted. You’ve expressed your feelings, and everyone can use that as a basis for further discussion.

The other person might ask, “Why do you feel that way? I wasn’t targeting you.” You can respond, “Last time, you pointed out my mistakes in a public setting when you could have told me privately. It made it difficult for me to save face, so I felt like you were targeting me.”

The other person can then explain, “I wasn’t targeting you at that moment. I treat everyone the same way because my responsibility is to identify risks, and doing so in a meeting is the most efficient way for everyone to discuss response strategies.”

You see, misunderstandings can slowly be resolved this way. By expressing your feelings, you’re actually suggesting another possibility: that you felt targeted when the other person didn’t intend to target you, and there must be some misunderstanding. We should acknowledge the existence of this misunderstanding.

Similarly, in performance discussions, if you feel that Jack hasn’t been enthusiastic about his work lately and isn’t performing well, how should you express it? “I feel like you’ve been down lately; is something bothering you? How can I help?” Remember: express your feelings, not their motives.

03 – Use Cognitive Dissonance to Change People

So, what should you do if the other person’s motives are indeed impure, and they are deliberately engaging in harmful behavior towards you? Should you confront them directly? Ask them why they are hurting you? Whether it’s intentional? Should you confront them with evidence? Can you do that? Well, you can, but it’s a “low-level” approach.

This approach might stop or prevent further harm to you, but from then on, you’ll have created another enemy. Nobody believes they are a bad person. Even if they’re doing bad things, they must have found good reasons for themselves.

If you expose them, they will also engage in cognitive dissonance and see you as the bad person. That’s how they can sleep at night. This “vendetta against the bad guy” story has been made into countless movies.

“High-level” individuals don’t act this way. High-level individuals know that attacking your motives is a big no-no. Once you attack someone’s motives, even if you win overwhelmingly, you’ve triggered a time bomb.

High-level individuals communicate like this: “I noticed that you did something recently, and I know you did it with good intentions. I can see that you’ve kept it a secret from me, and I really appreciate that. Thank you. Although this good intention didn’t really work and had some negative effects on me, I’m still very grateful. If you could do it this way or that way, it would be even better. But either way, thank you.”

You keep saying it, and you keep saying it, and the other person will think that what they did was indeed out of good intentions, that they are a good person (this is crucial). Then, for the sake of cognitive dissonance, they will modify their behavior to align it with this good-intentioned motive. That’s how they can sleep at night. This is the high-level approach.

You say the other person is a bad person, and they will become a bad person; you say the other person is a good person, and they will become a good person. It sounds magical, but this is the power of “cognitive dissonance.” Using cognitive dissonance to change people is an “advanced” strategy.

The same principle applies when communicating with employees. Even if an employee is genuinely not performing well, you should not say it directly and label them as such. Instead, keep telling them: “I think you are a particularly positive and team-oriented person, but we haven’t seen it in this matter. Where did things go wrong? You are a particularly capable person, but we haven’t seen your capabilities in this situation. Something must have gone wrong in the middle.”

They will think, “Yes, I am indeed a positive person. I am indeed a team player. I am indeed capable,” and then they will find a way to prove that they are. This is the high-level approach, using cognitive dissonance to change an employee’s behavior.


Today, I talked about three principles of communication:

  1. Evaluate actions, not individuals.
  2. Express your feelings, not assumptions about the other person’s motives.
  3. Utilize cognitive dissonance to bring about change.

These three principles can be applied not only in communication with employees but also in various aspects of everyday communication. I hope they provide some inspiration to everyone.

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