Delivering Negative Feedback with Dignity

Delivering Negative Feedback with Dignity

By Jill Vitiello

In a business world that values collaboration, teams and their leaders depend on constant communication and feedback to drive projects forward. When things are going well, it’s easy to share kudos. But when a colleague makes a mistake or misses a deadline, the team needs a dependable way to deliver negative feedback that avoids drama and preserves dignity.

When you’re preparing for a difficult conversation with a colleague, keep in mind that human beings process bad news in four stages: Shock, anger, resistance and acceptance. The “SARA syndrome” is a natural response and can’t be hurried. People need to pass through each stage in order to arrive at a place where they can regain a positive outlook and be productive. Knowing what emotions to expect, and allowing an individual to feel and express them, prepares leaders to be empathetic and effective.

Imagine you need to address an employee’s error. As a leader, your goals are to point out the problem, work with the employee to identify a solution and the lesson learned, and get the project back on track. By sticking to the facts and focusing on resolution, you get the discussion off to a great start. When you understand SARA, you will be ready for the employee’s emotional response. So, when those emotions surface, here is how to proceed:

Shock – Your colleague’s reaction may range from disbelief to rage to stunned silence. He may question your judgment or demand you provide proof. Acknowledge that this is a difficult conversation and that you understand his emotions.

Anger – In spite of your calm demeanor, your colleague may shout, swear or burst into tears. You may want to give your colleague time to collect himself. Assure him that the conversation will continue when he is ready. Allowing an expression of anger is acceptable within the confines of appropriate behavior in a professional setting. Never tolerate verbal abuse, violence or threats.

Resistance – When the individual’s immediate emotional response is spent, anticipate defensiveness and denial. Your colleague might try to shut down or derail the discussion by blaming you or others or by offering excuses and apologies. Bring the focus back to resolving the error and returning to productivity.

Acceptance – When your colleague sees that you are resolute in solving the problem together and not in judging or shaming him, reason returns and he can begin to see that your feedback, although difficult to hear, is intended to be constructive, not punitive.

Too many leaders avoid giving necessary negative feedback because they dislike confrontation and are unwilling to deal with emotions. That’s unfair to your colleagues. They can’t fix what they don’t know is broken. You have to tell them.

By understanding SARA, you don’t have to fear the emotional response – it’s normal. Empathetic leaders allow people the time and space to express themselves appropriately; then they offer a way forward. This approach preserves the individual’s dignity and enables the team to make progress. And that’s the whole point of delivering any feedback.

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