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How to deliver negative feedback effectively?

Feedback is a paradox. The majority of leaders tend to avoid giving corrective or negative feedback. A study conducted by Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman [1] found that 43% of leaders describe giving corrective feedback as a stressful and difficult experience.

On the other hand, 94% of feedback recipients state that corrective feedback improves their performance when delivered in a proper manner. It means that people actually want to hear such feedback but leaders need to improve their way of giving it. Let me show you what the best ideas for giving corrective feedback are. To understand the basics of this issue you can use the 5 steps presented below.

  • 43%

    difficult for leaders

  • 94%

    valuable for employees

#1 Play some background music

When you watch a movie you know exactly when something serious, funny or romantic is about to happen. It’s because background music sets the mood. In your everyday interactions background music is the way you speak and behave.

That includes the smile on your face, the tone of your voice, the words you use and eye contact you make. Thanks to those factors, the receiver becomes aware of the positive or negative connotations of the conversation, even before you start delivering the core message.

“Yhmmm… so, just before I tell you, I want to make sure that you know… we understand each other…”

After a few words like that and a couple of seconds of silence you already know what you’re about to hear is going to be difficult and probably harmful to you. Our brains are programmed to respond differently to something that can be perceived as a threat or something that indicates a positive outcome. That’s why it’s crucial to set the mood before the real conversation begins.

#2 Be prepared

Make a plan and stick to it. If you come to a meeting unprepared, the risk of delivering poor feedback increases. That’s particularly true when it comes to corrective feedback. You need to plan the structure of the discussion first.

Ask yourself how you’re going to deliver a negative message and why it’s important to you. Then you should put yourself in the other person’s shoes. How would you react to such advice? What would you say? Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman developed a template for those kinds of discussions. They describe it as the FUEL model in the book entitled “The Extraordinary Coach” [2].


First frame the conversation. Set the context for it. Agree on a purpose and a desired outcome.

“I’d like to talk to you about [the issue] and by the end of the conversation, I’d like to make sure we have a plan to fix [the issue].”


The next step is to understand the current state you’re both in. Explore your recipient’s point of view before sharing your own. You need to appreciate other perspectives in order to find the best solution.

“How does the other person see the situation?”
“What impact does it have on you and others?


Furthermore, you need to explore a desired state. Articulate your vision of a successful outcome. Explore multiple alternative paths before choosing the best one.

“What would the ideal situation look like?”
“What might be some approaches you can adopt?”

Lay out

Finally, lay out a plan for success. Identify the specific, time-bound steps of action required to achieve the desired result. Determine the milestones and the plan for that.

“How can I support you in moving forward?”
“When should we touch base on that issue again?”

#3 Stay focused

Don’t try to put everything into one conversation. I know that sharing corrective information is not an easy task. Because of those difficulties some people can be tempted to share all issues in one meeting.

You should refrain from using a fire and forget pattern of conversation. It can be overwhelming for the other person and it will be harder for you to focus on finding the best solution. Stick to one or two most important topics and keep rest for another session.

#4 Practice before

Rehearse any serious discussion. You need to stay calm, know what to say and of course not to offend the other person, which is why you should prepare for it. And no matter how stupid it may sound, a rehearsal will help you.

Even a mental run-through will let you listen to the words you use and make any adjustments. Before the meeting you should  revise your chosen words, phrases and think for a while. In a moment you can realize that your words may not sound right and then you can put your message in other words.

#5 It’s all about respect

One of the most important rules of leadership is to treat others with respect. What does this mean exactly?

It refers to asking rather than telling which is a sign of the utmost respect. Being calm and prepared is another way of showing respect. You can treat feedback as a gift. But to in order to make this gift valuable, you need to make sure it meets the standards of conduct and is helpful to the other person.


[1] John H. Zenger, Joe Folkman. (2014). Feedback: The Powerful Paradax. Zenger Folkman.

[2] John H. Zenger, Kathleen Stinnett. (2010). The Extraordinary Coach. McGraw-Hill, New York.