1 The Torture of Giving Critical Feedback at Work | The Billfold

The Torture of Giving Critical Feedback at Work

Hands down, my worst work experience to date was trying to tell someone they have a bad attitude. This someone was my coworker, Ruth, and technically, I was her supervisor even though we were the same age. My boss directed me to give her this feedback during her annual review. Ruth was actually terrific at many parts of her job, but according to my boss she had a “negative attitude.” It was a combination of an unfriendly and unhelpful demeanor (that I think was accidental, e.g. that she frowned when her face was at rest), and a tendency to avoid taking on additional work (mostly pretty boring stuff that I wouldn’t have wanted either).

I was only 25 at the time, and totally unprepared to present this in a constructive way. I failed miserably, erring on the side of not offending her and landing squarely in the center of avoidance. The conversation went something like this:

Me: So, Ruth… Some people have noticed that you don’t always project the most positive attitude… I mean, it’s not that you don’t get things done, but that you can seem a little down sometimes….um, maybe a little negative… I know you have a mix of work and some of it isn’t the most interesting… maybe that’s it?

Ruth: I think it’s ok.

Me: OK (mop sweat from brow and end conversation).

Since then, I think I’ve learned a few things about giving feedback, namely that being very direct and specific is best. At my current job (no longer the same place I worked at with Ruth), we recently had a training on giving feedback lead by professional trainer Carol Scofield. She had some sage advice, most of which I had totally violated with Ruth, including:

• Don’t save up feedback, but give it in a timely manner (my boss, really, had saved the feedback for her review, rather than attaching it to an instance of her “negative attitude”). • Provide feedback in a private and informal setting (we were in a busy restaurant).
• Be specific about the behaviors (I had no specifics, just a vague idea of her giving off a negative vibe).
• Be prospective rather than retrospective, focusing more on future performance (I didn’t even make it this far).

Carol also suggests first presenting the issue and then making it a collaborative process. You and your feedback-receiver should brainstorm solutions in an open discussion, and together resolve how to proceed, picking a deadline and method for follow up. Carol also reminded us to “do unto others as they would like done unto them.” In other words, try to consider how they would like feedback since some people prefer it face-to-face, others by email, etc.

I’d like to think that if I had to have the same conversation with Ruth again, armed with Carol’s advice and several more years of work experience, now it would go something more like this:

Me: Ruth, now that we’ve covered all of the things you’ve achieved in the past year, I’d like to give you some feedback that’s more general, about how your attitude and demeanor has been perceived. Specifically, I’ve received some feedback that you sometimes give off a negative vibe and aren’t willing to pitch in and take on additional work. To give a specific example, when David asked you to complete the lighting audits, you seemed pretty resistant. In addition, when people approach you at your desk or in the kitchen, you seem unhappy. I know this might be hard to hear, how does this sound to you?

Ruth: I’m not sure, I don’t think of myself as a negative person, and I think I’ve been pretty willing to take on new tasks.

Me: Yeah, it might just be as simple as being thoughtful about how you might be coming across. Maybe we can come up with a way to check in about this in a more timely manner?

Ruth: OK, sounds good.

At the time, I certainly assumed that I could be a supervisor just by modeling things that my supervisor did for me. Perhaps most people share this assumption, that simply because we’ve been managed, we know enough to manage others. Yet, a little bit of training and thought can go a long way. With more clarity about both the problem and the solution, we just might have gotten somewhere, both leaving the review with a positive attitude!


“The Grindstone” is a new series about how we work today by long-time Billfold writers Leda Marritz and Stephanie Stern. Looking for advice? Want to see a specific issue covered in the future? You can email them here.

Steph Stern works in energy and environmental policy in the San Francisco Bay Area. She writes about careers and life choices at Small Answers (or follow on Twitter: @smallanswers).

Photo: Daxko


11 Comments / Post A Comment

Lily Bart (#5,766)

At my school (I’m a teacher), we use the term “observable phenomena” a lot to model how we give feedback to students, but also each other. So instead of “Suzy doesn’t seem to care much about this class,” we might say, “Suzy’s work is often late, and she has seemed visibly sleepy several times”–this gives us more possibilities to try and help the student (why is she sleepy? does she need a new planner?) and avoids labels like “lazy.” This is a helpful way to give feedback to anyone, really!

ledamarritz (#3,069)

@Lily Bart Yep, exactly the same idea! If we all got more practiced at giving this type of feedback to people when we were still in school, we’d be much more practiced at it as adults in the workplace.

Maybe we can come up with a way to check in about this in a more timely manner?

What does that mean? “The next time it seems you have a negative attitude and/or won’t take on extra work, we’ll talk about it in the moment?”

facepalm (#4,409)

@polka dots vs stripes this is also my question. I wasn’t sure what that really meant.

stephstern (#4,149)

@polka dots vs stripes Good clarification! Certainly, the more specific you can be in giving feedback, the better. That said, the solutions should be a discussion rather than dictated

@stephstern The way it was phrased was just kind of odd.

Vib G Yor (#3,566)

I’d like to read something from the other side of this – what it’s like to GET critical feedback at work. How do people handle it?

For personal reasons, right now I really want to read about people who have been humbled and how they’ve handled it, rather than about hyper-competent overachievers who reached management level by age 25. I realize this wasn’t a hyper-competent moment, but it’s better than being on the other side of that conversation.

stephstern (#4,149)

@Vib G Yor Good question! We will try to answer this in a future post. Do you want to share more about your situation so we can see if we can help? Feel free to email at the link above

hoyden (#6,428)

@Vib G Yor I was recently “Ruth” at work – I handled it SO POORLY – but in my defense I was SO frustrated & exhausted by everything at work that having someone give me critical feedback was really hard to hear. My manager told me I had a negative attitude and was being short and snapping at people. All which were true and valid criticisms (something I can only admit to weeks after the fact), but they were just really hard to hear because that’s not how I want to be seen, it’s not who I am. Anyway, I explained to her my frustrations (all things out of either of our control) and we’ve had a much better relationship since and I definitely think her critical feedback helped me (when I had some distance).

Dancercise (#94)

Ugh… I’ve just taken on more responsibilities at work, and it’s going to include giving critical feedback, which I am terrible at. This is perfect timing.

CmdrBanana (#1,872)

While I personally think that (some kinds of) critical feedback are immensely helpful, I have a huge problem with feedback about a person’s motivations or feelings (as in, the difference between “you give of a negative vibe” and “you tend to frown when people approach you.”) One is about a specific action, the other is the feedback giver assuming they know what’s going on that person’s head.

However the response “I think it’s ok” to your supervisor critiquing your work performance is…not okay.

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