Giving, effective, negative feedback is difficult.

It was for me at first.

Positive feedback was easy. But negative feedback felt awkward and uncomfortable.

As we scaled iNET Interactive, a Fortune 5000 company for seven consecutive years and acquired in 2015, I initially struggled with it. As my team grew, revenue pressures mounted, acquisitions occurred, and unscheduled 1and1 time diminished, it became critically clear I had to become effective at providing feedback – and negative feedback too.

At iNET, performance metrics were communicated from the corporate scorecard down to the individual contributor. An internal web portal gave all employees almost daily visibility into their individual goals versus actuals. Corporate values, mission, and vision were posted throughout the offices. All-hand meetings were held monthly with visibility into the company and department-wide performance metrics. I conducted weekly, scheduled 1and1s with each direct report. Expectations around each individual’s role, purpose, and impact were well documented and communicated frequently.

High Growth Demands Effective Negative Feedback

I had a fantastic team of high performers. But everyone, including me, isn’t perfect. At times, especially under pressure of high growth, we can struggle to consistently meet expectations – adjustments are required to maintain alignment. It’s a leader’s responsibility to bring their team into alignment and to shape individual behavior to benefit the organization and to help each individual be successful.

Effective negative feedback should happen immediately (when possible) and in private. Not held for formal review time. And not conducted in any way that embarrasses or shames an individual. Public callouts are unproductive and ineffective especially in the long term if you care about building a high-performance team.

Fortunately, I was guided by an executive coach and an exceptional podcast from Manager Tools. I learned how to cut through the emotional discomfort to provide negative feedback effectively. What I learned and integrated into my management style is a process of noticing and nudging.

An Effective Way to Deliver Negative Feedback

Here’s how I provided negative feedback. It worked well for me based on the results my team produced at iNET Interactive.

In private, immediately following a situation where I observed negative behavior, I pulled the individual aside, and asked if I could provide feedback, stated the observed behavior, and stated the impact it has on the team, company, goal, etc. Then I would walk away. No further discussion.

Manager Tools defines the four-step process as:

  1. Ask whether the individual is open to feedback. For example, “Kevin, may I give you some feedback?”
  2. Describe the specific behavior you observed. For example, “Kevin, when you’re looking at your smartphone while in a meeting…
  3. Describe the impact of the observed behavior.“Kevin, when you’re looking at your smartphone while in meeting, here’s what happens, it distracts attention, damages your relationship with others and is disrespectful to the other team members.”

This ten-second or less encounter simply acknowledges to the direct report that you noticed a gap between expectations and behavior. That’s it. No further engagement necessary. Don’t stick around for a rebuttal. Point made.

If the improper behavior insists, repeat the same steps above but add a call-to-action like, “what are you going to do about this?” Or I would add a time frame, “can you adjust this behavior before we meet the next time?” Then I’d walk away. This escalation requested a change to happen. Still a short exchange. No rebuttal. The request is a slight escalation and a more forceful nudge.

If no behavioral change happens after the second notice and nudge, repeat the process again. But this time escalate to include a specific consequence such as less or removed responsibility, less involvement on newer projects, and so on.

The consequence has to fit the severity of the negative behavior. At this point, depending on your company’s policies and protocols, HR is may need to get involved.

And, as Manager Tools stated eloquently stated, “Feedback is always about future behavior. It’s NOT about the past, because there’s nothing we can do about the past.

Changing Behavior Takes Time and Consistency

I also found that I needed to be clear on what behavior was critical of each individual on my team. There is a balance required. Too much negative feedback and it becomes micro-managing and restrictive. Too little, and no behavior change occurs resulting in performance improvement plans, firings or even worse, a drag on your team’s overall performance and infectious toxicity build up among the team members.

Ideally, you’re investing the appropriate amount of time hiring the best candidates that fit your culture and possess great attitudes. People who naturally fall into alignment with expectations. However, in a high growth company where adapting to change is demanded frequently, delivering negative feedback becomes crucial. In these stressful (yet exhilarating) environments, you’re forced to continually stretch.

If you hire effectively, negative feedback that notices and nudges will achieve the necessary course correction that leads to great results. It’s not “negative” when you’re helping your direct reports gain alignment and positioned effectively to reach their goals.


Kevin Gold is a B2B marketing and business growth consultant with more than 18 years of strategic digital marketing and business leadership experience. Next Leap Strategy develops and executes customer acquisition (demand generation) programs for B2B companies to grow their sales pipeline.