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Mastering the Art of Negative Feedback

Radical candor, performance appraisals and more—each has its place when you need to deliver criticism

A woman is talking to a man in an office.

​As director of people operations at Gem, a Los Angeles-based blockchain technology company, Madeline Mann regularly has walk-and-talks along the Venice Beach boardwalk with each of the firm's 20 local employees. During these informal chats, employees divulged that they often left company meetings feeling like they hadn't expressed themselves directly enough.

"Their feedback was couched because they were being sensitive to others' feelings," Mann said. 

That motivated her, with buy-in from senior leadership, to begin developing a direct feedback culture at Gem, based on Kim Scott's radical candor framework. 

"Radical candor is the ability to challenge directly and show you care personally at the same time," said Scott, an executive coach in Silicon Valley and author of Radical Candor: Be a Kickass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity (St. Martin's Press, 2017). "Radical candor just means saying what you think while also giving a damn about the person you're saying it to." 

Here's an illustration to understand the framework,: The vertical axis represents "caring personally," while the horizontal axis represents "challenging directly." This creates four quadrants: ruinous empathy (too much caring, not enough challenging), obnoxiously aggressive (not enough caring, too much  challenging), insincere manipulation (not enough of either) and radical candor (the right blend of both.)


When Mann introduced the framework to Gem employees and asked them to rate themselves in the four quadrants, most people identified with "ruinous empathy." 

"We had the caring down cold," Mann said. "But people had to be convinced that challenging someone directly is a form of caring." 

This situation is not that unusual. Scott estimates that more than 75 percent of people she coaches fall into this category, including many HR professionals who typically pride themselves on being nice but who struggle to be more assertive and, if necessary, confrontational.

New Ways of Thinking About Feedback

In The 2020 Workplace Report, HR experts Jeanne Meister and Karie Willyerd identified a disconnect between the feedback direct reports valued and the feedback managers delivered. Direct reports ranked "receiving straight feedback" from their managers as a top priority, yet managers were ill-prepared to deliver. (When HR professionals ranked managerial capabilities along eight different dimensions, the ability to give "straight feedback" to direct reports ranked dead last.)

This may partly reflect an antiquated approach to, and understanding of, the role that feedback plays in employee performance and motivation. Although some companies still rely heavily on annual performance reviews as a primary evaluation tool, it is rarely popular with managers or direct reports, and as a stand-alone practice it is often ineffectual. People being evaluated can feel unfairly judged on things that happened months earlier and don't seem relevant. And simplistic rating systems overgeneralize performance, fail to place information in context and set up a defensive, adversarial dynamic.

If you really want to improve an employee's performance, feedback is usually more effective when it is delivered in real time, along with guidance and recommendations about how to improve performance.

Linda Richardson, a sales training coach and author of Sales Coaching: Making the Great Leap from Sales Manager to Sales Coach (McGraw-Hill Education, 2008), recommends integrating evaluative feedback (such as performance appraisals) with developmental feedback designed to improve performance. Developmental feedback is more forward-looking and relationship-oriented. It relies on coaching, guidance and mentoring rather than judging and criticizing. 

"Developmental feedback looks forward to what we [the coach and the person being coached] can do to improve and create a better picture for the future," Richardson said. It is a continuous process that takes place in real time throughout the year. 

"The time for developmental feedback is always, whether in a coaching session or in a corridor," Richardson said. "Developmental feedback empowers because it helps people identify obstacles they face and reinforces their role in removing the obstacles each day." 

Developmental feedback can also take the sting out of annual reviews, because regular feedback focused on improvement makes it less likely that there will be any big year-end surprises.

How to Have Tough Conversations

Over the course of her HR career, Eileen Habelow estimates that she spent 80 percent of her time coaching managers and leaders on how to have difficult conversations. As the president of Leadership-Link, a Boston-based consulting firm that works with small and midsize biomedical, pharmaceutical and health care companies, she frequently fields requests from clients who want to create better feedback systems. Because these companies deal with complex issues in a rapidly changing environment, it is important for employees to continuously improve their skills and expertise—and for mistakes to be recognized and corrected in real time so that they don't harden into bad habits or lead to erroneous conclusions. 

"If your goal is to get the most out of people," Habelow said, "then you have to be willing to give direct, difficult feedback. It's not a bad thing. You're doing them a service."

Along with a coaching and guidance mindset, Habelow provided the following suggestions for those who want to get better at delivering direct feedback: 

  • Begin by clarifying your objectives. What do you want to accomplish in this conversation?
  • Script out the beginning and the end of the conversation.
  • Try to anticipate how the information will be received along with your own reaction to any response.
  • Negative feedback should be specifically focused on recognizable behaviors that can be changed rather than on personality traits or vague generalizations. 

"You have to be specific about behavior you have observed and the impact it is having on others, and provide some guidance moving forward," she said. 

She related a particularly tough set of conversations that she had with a high-performing employee whose approach was perceived as overly direct and extremely demanding (or, in radical candor terms, obnoxiously aggressive). 

"He accomplished much but always left damaged relationships behind and was getting a reputation for caring only about the business and not the people that he worked with. His impact was going to erode if the habits continued," Habelow said.

Initially he was quite defensive. But she got through to him by offering him specific examples and observations of people with whom he now had strained relationships because of pushing too hard. Because he was very results-oriented, she focused on the impact of the strained relationships: People were slower to respond, only giving the bare minimum and not going above and beyond for him.

It was easier for him to accept her criticism when she made it clear that she understood where he was coming from and would not do anything to diminish his success. However, she challenged his approach and was able to persuade him to make small changes that resulted in more positive working relationships.

Mann, too, recommends beginning difficult conversations by showing empathy. She finds it helpful to look at employees' situations from their perspective, even if she disagrees with them. However, she cautions against "compliment sandwiches"—a criticism wedged between two compliments—because the praise is likely to come across as contrived and insincere.

It doesn't have to delivered flawlessly, she said, but the person receiving the feedback must feel that the other person truly has their best interests at heart.

Learning to Receive Feedback

After a presentation about motivation bombed early in his career, Adam Grant began studying why negative criticism is so soul-crushing and whether it's possible to learn to like it. Grant, a management and psychology professor at the Wharton School and author of Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success (Penguin Books, 2013), believes people dread negative feedback because of the way it's delivered. 

If you don't trust the other person's intent, it's going to be hard to hear what they have to say, Grant said. To build up your tolerance for negative feedback, he recommends cultivating a "challenge network" of people who you trust to deliver honest feedback. Over time, that approach can help you get better at hearing criticism and learn to welcome it as an opportunity for self-improvement. To promote self-awareness, try rating your own response to negative feedback. Were you defensive? Did you get upset? Were you able to act on the information? 

Gem employees are encouraged to approach direct feedback with an attitude of curiosity rather than defensiveness. What is this person trying to tell you? How can you use that feedback to improve your skills and performance? 

"When people learn to see direct feedback as a gift, they start practicing it on each other," Mann said. During weekly company meetings, Gem employees share their experiences with radical candor and award a "candor canary" to the person who provides the best direct feedback that week.

Model Best Practices

As an HR practitioner you may be required to deliver negative feedback to people over whom you have no direct authority. You can earn their trust and respect by delivering bad news in a compassionate and objective way that is designed to help them benefit from your guidance and support. 

To help build a direct feedback culture, you can coach and educate managers about the best way to deliver negative feedback. For example, every Gem employee learns about the radical candor framework through a series of facilitations that both introduce and reinforce the importance of delivering direct feedback in a caring way.

When you're on the receiving end, you can learn to approach negative feedback with an open mind and an eye toward self-improvement—and you can encourage others to do the same. This will make you a stronger, more-effective and resilient HR professional.  

Arlene S. Hirsch is a career counselor and author based in Chicago.   

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