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



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