How to Give Negative Feedback – Without Killing Morale

By Rachel Provan
how to give negative feedback

Giving negative feedback can seem like a lose/lose situation. If you call out your employee for doing something wrong, they’re likely to (at best) get defensive or (at worst) quit.

And if you talk yourself into believing that their issues “aren’t that big of a deal”, you’re not doing what’s best for your company or your team.

Thankfully, it doesn’t have to be that way.


When I was first a manager, I was lucky enough to read a book called “Crucial Confrontations“.

It showed me that the way I handled conflict in my personal life could actually be just as relevant at work. I could approach things collaboratively rather than as an authoritarian – and it actually worked better! Phew.

Here’s how it works:

Make Negative Feedback Timely

Don’t let things fester. Once you have the necessary information, set a meeting. Otherwise, you are likely to let it slide in the vain hope it will get better. Chances are it won’t. And it’s much harder to interrupt a pattern of behavior than an isolated incident.

It’s also much more respectful to bring it up. They can handle it. No one wants to think others are quietly tolerating them. If you have a beef, bring it up.

1. Psychological Safety

Assume good intent

Before the conversation happens, get in the right state of mind. You can’t go in with the attitude that this person is a jerk. Ask yourself:

Why might a reasonable person have acted this way?

Make sure you meet with the person 1:1 in private.

2. Connect On A Shared Value

This is how you start the conversation. Bring up something you both care about, and ask if you can give them some feedback so that you can work towards the desired outcome. For example, if you know they care about the team or want to grow into a managerial position, you can bring either of those things up as the context.

3. Fact-Based Problem With Example

“You’re not collaborative and it’s affecting the team” isn’t helpful and will make the other person defensive.

State what and when.

“On Friday I noticed that when Tim and Alexis each brought up ideas for Q2 projects, you cut them both off.”

3(a) Reestablish psychological safety

Once you’ve stated what they did wrong, they are likely to become defensive. Head it off at the pass by showing that you know their intentions were good.

4. Ask For Their Perspective

Everyone has their side to the story. Let them share theirs. You might not know everything. But then again neither do they…

Highlight invisible consequences

Just because they didn’t mean any harm doesn’t mean there was no harm done. Shine a light on the results that they may have missed.

5 . Make A Plan Together And Follow Up

It’s best if they can come up with the plan, rather than your having to dictate it. Ask questions and guide them rather than laying down the law.

The important thing to do here is to get a COMMITTMENT from them that they will do things differently going forward.

What This Looks Like in Action:

Negative feedback doesn’t have to be confrontational. It should be about two people trying to solve a problem.

Psychological Safety

“Hey Sam, I wanted to talk about the Q2 planning we’ve been working on. I know we’re all excited about the visibility this will give our team and it’s a great chance to showcase your leadership skills. Would it be alright if I gave you some feedback to make sure you’re moving in the right direction?”

Connect on shared value

On Friday I noticed that when Leah and Alex each brought up ideas for Q2 projects, you cut them both off.

Reestablish psychological safety

“I’m not saying you aren’t a team player or that you think you’re better than they are. I KNOW you care about the team and everyone on it.” 

Ask for their perspective

“So can you talk to me about what happened there?”


Highlight invisible consequences

“I totally understand about being excited about your idea, and that you had some concerns about the projects they were suggesting. The issue is, that when you don’t give them a chance to get their ideas out, they are less likely to work with you on future projects. I don’t want you to get left out as there are a lot of eyes on our department right now.”

Make a plan together and follow up

“Ok so what do you think should be our next steps on this?”


“Sounds good. So can I get a committment from you that you’ll give everyone a chance to voice their ideas fully – even if you don’t think they’re the best?”


“Great. Check back in with me on Wednesday after you’ve talked to them about their ideas and let me know how it went.”

Bad News/Good News

The bad news is – you probably won’t nail giving negative feedback right the first time.

It can help to write down a few bullet points and run it through with someone.

The good news is, it will still be an improvement, and you will only get better with time. And if you have good employee engagement, you have a much easier time resolving issues, because everyone feels bought into the outcome.


PS – If you’re struggling with this – thats normal. Especially if you haven’t had leadership training. If you need any help with this – or with CS Strategy and Work/Life balance, let’s chat. I can help.

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