How to Give Negative Feedback Without Shaming People

June 23, 2014

9:05 am

When’s the last time you sat down and had an honest, open conversation with a team member about their performance? Or got such feedback yourself, for that matter?

“Today’s organizations are so metrics-focused in their evaluation of performance that giving, receiving, and soliciting valuable feedback ironically has become rare,” says researcher Brené Brown.

Even if you’re giving and getting feedback, it can still be a minefield. And that’s because it’s hard – for everyone involved. The receiver may have a rough time taking criticism and get defensive, while you may be afraid to make them angry or get blamed for contributing to the problem. In Brown’s words, both parties feel vulnerable and are apt to get self-righteous.

In “5 Signs You Have a Shame Culture at Your Startup,” I explained that a lack of feedback might indicate a shame culture. But so can the presence of poorly given feedback. Here are some tips from Brown’s Engaged Feedback Checklist [PDF] to make sure you’re not shaming your team or shaming yourself.

Don’t be antagonistic

You are on the same team, after all, so your attitude should reflect that. Communicate that there is a certain problem, and you want to help them solve it. Physically sitting next to someone – being on the same side, not across a big desk – actually helps. Brown recalls a meeting when she went to talk to a professor about a grade and was ready for a fight, until the prof sat down next to her, praised some of her work, and offered help on the area that needed improvement. 

“I don’t know a single person who can be open to accepting feedback or owning responsibility for something when they’re being hammered,” says Brown. “Our hardwiring takes over and we self-protect.”

Acknowledge the positives

It’s easy to feel hammered when you’re getting any negative feedback at all, which is why it’s important to identify the positives. Even weaknesses can somehow reflect strengths, Brown says; for example, someone who micromanages is also probably someone who is dependable and takes responsibility. Identify how those and other strengths can help the person out of their predicament and toward improvement. You can also thank the person for their efforts and what they did do right. 

Assign responsibility – and not just to them

But this isn’t wishy-washy feedback. You can acknowledge what they did wrong and what the consequences are, without making them feel like a bad employee or a bad person. On the flipside, if you’re their manager or CEO, you probably played some role in the problem. Own up to it, and they will be more likely to listen to you. 

Be open-minded

Instead of feeling self-righteous and attacking, be ready to listen and admit that there may be another side of the story that you don’t see. In the process, you may also learn a thing or two about your organization, your other team members, or yourself. 

“Feedback may be one of the most difficult arenas to negotiate in our lives. We should remember, though, that victory is not getting good feedback, avoiding giving difficult feedback, or avoiding the need for feedback,” says Brown. “Instead it’s taking off the armor, showing up, and engaging.”

Did you like this article?

Get more delivered to your inbox just like it!

Sorry about that. Try these articles instead!

Kira M. Newman is a Tech Cocktail writer interested in the harsh reality of entrepreneurship, work-life balance, and psychology. She is the founder of The Year of Happy and has been traveling around the world interviewing entrepreneurs in Asia, Europe, and North America since 2011. Follow her @kiramnewman or contact

Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)