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Leadership Today - Practical Tips For Leaders

Mar 24, 2019


Commentary around the effectiveness of negative feedback is mixed, with people often highlighting the adverse impact that it can have on individuals. But is there a way to make negative feedback, well, less negative?



Hello and welcome to episode 30 of the Leadership Today Podcast where each week we tackle one of today’s biggest leadership challenges. This week we’re exploring how to make negative feedback a little less negative.

Commentary around the effectiveness of negative feedback is mixed, with people often highlighting the adverse impact that it can have on individuals. This has led some to recommend that leaders should avoid providing negative feedback altogether. A less extreme recommendation is typically to provide much more positive feedback than negative feedback, which makes a lot of sense. We should put a lot more effort into guiding people towards an objective, rather than correcting them for straying from the path. But is there a way to make negative feedback, well, less negative?

Let’s step outside the business context for a moment, and into the world of friendships. Recent research has shown that as a friendship deepens, the friends seek and provide more negative feedback to each other. In contrast, the deepening friendship doesn’t lead to an increase or decrease in the amount of positive feedback provided. It seems that the depth of the connection allows negative feedback to play a more constructive role in the relationship. The friendship becomes a safe place where people can provide and receive candid feedback to help each other improve.

So what’s the difference between positive and negative feedback. One simple distinction is that positive feedback seeks to recognise and reinforce a behaviour. In contrast negative feedback seeks to identify a behaviour that should be reduced or changed.

As we covered in an earlier episode, one way to make feedback more effective is to focus on the behaviour demonstrated, and the impact of that behaviour on you and others. But what other conditions are specific to making negative feedback work? How do we make it more like the negative feedback close friends seek and provide to each other?

Two pieces of research provide helpful insight into making negative feedback more constructive. The first is a very recent meta analysis of 78 studies into the impact of negative feedback on intrinsic motivation. The second study looked specifically at the factors that moderate an employees reaction to negative feedback. Taken together, these two studies highlight four important principles when we need to provide negative feedback.

  1. Connection matters - much like in the earlier research about negative feedback in friendships, the closer the connection, the more effective the negative feedback. And face to face feedback works best. This allows a much richer conversation that factors in the subtle non verbal cues so important in communication.
  2. Your motivation matters - being considerate makes a difference. This could mean acknowledging that the feedback is difficult to give, but that you really want the person to develop and improve. In fact, you wouldn’t be providing the feedback unless you cared about the person’s development and progress.
  3. Quality matters - negative feedback works best when it is data and criteria based. This could involve highlighting how the negative behaviour is adversely impacting on performance measures for the role, and how the desired behaviour will help the individual.
  4. Guidance matters - the research demonstrated that negative feedback was more effective when there was clear guidance about how to improve. Such guidance helps demonstrate that you are willing to support the individual’s development.


Most people don’t enjoy giving or receiving negative feedback, but if delivered well using these four principles it can be an important driver of further development. So as a final reminder, connection matters, your motivation matters, quality matters, and guidance matters.

I hope you found this episode helpful. As always, please recommend the podcast to a friend or colleague. And you can get in touch via the website if you have any thoughts or feedback on the episode. See you next week!



A Meta-Analysis of Negative Feedback on Intrinsic Motivation. Fong, Carlton J; Patall, Erika A; Vasquez, Ariana C; Stautberg, Sandra. Educational Psychology Review; New York Vol. 31, Iss. 1,  (Mar 2019): 121-162.

Moderators of employee reactions to negative feedback. Steelman, Lisa A; Rutkowski, Kelly A. Journal of Managerial Psychology; Bradford Vol. 19, Iss. 1/2,  (2004): 6-18.

When friends exchange negative feedback. Finkelstein, Stacey R; Fishbach, Ayelet; Tu, Yanping. Motivation and Emotion; New York Vol. 41, Iss. 1,  (Feb 2017): 69-83