Difficult feedback conversations: why they’re important and how to ace them

Must-read insights for managers looking to share feedback effectively

Research has time and again found that while beginners prefer positive feedback as it motivates them to do more, once people become experienced in an area of work, they actually prefer negative feedback so as to step up their game. 

In one Harvard Business Review survey, nearly 6 in 10 survey respondents prefered corrective feedback over straight praise,. A Gallup study also showed that employees also prefer receiving negative feedback over no feedback at all. 

When constructive feedback is so actively sought after by employees, why is it so hard for managers to hold difficult conversations and communicate constructive feedback in a timely manner? Our conversations and experience with leaders and managers bring up a clear pattern behind this hesitation – anticipating hurting someone’s feelings, having a defensive reaction, or being unliked afterward. While these are valid fears, managers often discover these fears are more to do with their own thought patterns than actual employee reactions. 

Hence, we’ve tried to take insights from the best feedback conversations and jot down some tips for managers looking for ways to deliver constructive feedback effectively.

1. Focus on behavior, not personality

It’s way easier to change an action you do than to change who you are.

For example, if you have an assertive / outgoing / confident employee that is a star performer but doesn’t put too much effort into building up junior team members / considering alternate point of views, you could try framing your feedback like this:

“I could tell you’re very excited about the project. You also know a lot about this field which is a major plus. But sometimes, when you get excited and start sharing your ideas, you don’t leave room for others to voice their ideas. In particular, I noticed that our junior analyst Emily was trying to share her idea but it got shot down pretty quickly. Did you notice this too?”

2. Be specific

Zoom in on a certain problematic area instead of creating negativity around their general work. You want to come out of this having helped them find a way to improve, not leave them feeling disheartened and unproductive. 

For example, if you find yourself chasing an employee for deliverable or constantly having to remind them for updates, try saying this:

“I can’t help but notice this is the third deadline that’s been difficult for you this month. I appreciate you let me know in advance that you’re running behind, but I’m wondering if I can be of any help in getting you up to speed. Let’s take a look at everything that’s on your plate right now and how you’re spending your time — maybe we can figure out a solution together.”

3. Be inclusive

People are more accepting of corrective feedback if they feel that it’s a two-way conversation rather than a reprimand by someone talking down to them. A good way to do this is to encourage employees to give themselves feedback on their own work. Ask them something like this: 

“I’ve told you before it’s great that you think big-picture, but in the last two projects some important details were missed, like X and Y. Ultimately that set us back as we had to do A and B. Do you think there is anything you could do differently for next time?”

Be approachable

Show your team it’s okay to make mistakes as long as we’re willing to learn from them, and fast. If feedback comes with a sense of ‘holier than thou’, it can be difficult for team members to open up and feel comfortable in voicing their challenges before it’s too late. A good way to fix this is to make a personal connection. When giving feedback to an employee, try saying something like:

 “I remember when I had to do that, I was so bad at my first attempt. (Include a relevant incident) But I learnt the hard way that you have to do X and it doubled my results…”

4. Be a good listener

The more your employees feel heard, the more they feel you care, and greater the amount of trust they place in you. If you have developed a transparent, trust-based relationship with your team, then they will know that you have their best interests at heart and that the feedback, be it good or bad, is for their own benefit. Even if you feel you have the answers, instead of telling your employees where they need to improve, start by asking them how they feel about a certain situation. For example:

“I wanted to discuss your last sales pitch. How do you feel it went?”

Employees generally know when their work isn’t strong and giving them the opportunity to own up to it and offer insights into their own mistakes is a way to make the negative feedback more productive. Let it come from them, then respectfully agree and guide them with solutions.

5. Most importantly, be supportive

When ending the conversation, review the discussion’s essence and try to avoid the feedback’s negative aspects but focus on action points. Make sure to emphasize on what the employee could do differently and end by sharing that you’re confident of his/her ability to solve the issue.

Lastly, remember that negative feedback is only constructive if shared at the right moment, which is almost always ASAP. People aren’t perfect, and will be less likely to get offended / defensive if you share actionable insights in real time when they have the opportunity to better themselves rather than a mid-year or year end review when it’s too late. 

Delivering feedback effectively is a key management skill and extremely crucial to building a high performing team. So look at each exchange with your employees as a development opportunity for both them and yourself!

Do you have any other tips or advise for managers to be better at leading teams? We’d love to hear from you. Write to us at

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *