Main image of article Giving and Receiving Negative Feedback
Screen Shot 2016-09-12 at 9.07.51 AM Despite numerous studies documenting the career benefits of receiving feedback from managers and peers, new research from training firm VitalSmarts suggests that tech pros are particularly reluctant to share criticism with their colleagues. Why? “Because the regions that serve the high-tech industry are tightknit communities, and people have to work each other over and over again, there’s a sense that everyone needs to get along,” explained David Maxfield, author and VP of Research at VitalSmarts. Receiving negative feedback at work is never pleasant; giving it isn’t easy, either. But if you follow these tips, you may become more comfortable having these essential conversations. 

Assume Positive Intent

Humans are hardwired to detect intent and quickly determine who is friend or foe, according to Susan Fiske of Princeton University. So unless you make it clear that your motives are pure and transparent before you share negative feedback, your co-worker may perceive a threat and either misinterpret or tune out your message. “The emotional response comes first,” Maxfield said. “Most people instantly get defensive when criticized unless you make it clear that this is not an attack.” For instance, a co-worker may assume that you’re questioning his technical competency or trying to throw him under the bus when you just want to point out that a few lines of source code are causing performance bottlenecks. If you explain how your comments are intended to help, the recipient can relax and let his rational self take charge. When people feel psychologically safe, they are able to listen and actually hear what’s being said. In other words, share intent before content, and pay attention to how you are being received. When you see defensiveness, pause the conversation and restore safety by reiterating your positive intent. Conversely, try not to assume negative intent if your boss or co-worker gives you critical feedback. If you think your co-worker has ulterior motives, use a contrast statement to clarify his or her intentions; for example, you could ask: “So what are you saying? Are you inferring that I’m not a competent programmer?” Your co-worker’s response will help you understand his point of view and either confirm or contradict your suspicions. 

Stick to the Facts

Don’t make subjective or judgmental statements when sharing negative feedback, advised Whit Mitchell, executive coach and president of Working InSync. Provide specific facts; you can even cite quotes from end users or details about what you’ve personally observed. Avoid name calling or labeling a co-worker’s behavior as technically unsound or disorganized. Instead, describe what happened and the impact it’s having on teammates and stakeholders. This type of approach avoids bias and lets recipients draw their own conclusions from the facts. “Share your conclusions, but in a tentative way because your deductions aren’t necessarily true,” Maxfield said. “Once you present the facts, open up the discussion by asking your co-worker if they agree or how they see the situation.” Another option is to use Marshall Goldsmith’s feedforward technique, which focuses on solutions and what teams or individuals can do better the next time around, instead of previous missteps and errors. Moving forward toward a positive resolution makes givers and receivers feel better about sharing feedback in the future. If you’re receiving criticism, and the information you are getting is unclear, ask questions. Don’t try to defend or justify your behavior. Be quiet and listen, even if it stings. Remember, you have the option of changing or ignoring unfounded criticism. While giving and receiving negative feedback can be painful, it also provides a tremendous opportunity to learn, grow and improve.