Sharing Critical Feedback

Being the bearer of bad news is neither fun nor easy. Successful managers tend to be direct (although not harsh) early on in the conversation.

Q: Our organization has a culture of kindness, which leads to managers not sharing difficult feedback with direct reports. Many fear facing emotional reactions from their staff. Any advice?

A: Being the bearer of bad news is neither fun nor easy. While many in this situation default to beating around the bush, or worse, avoiding the critical feedback altogether, managers have more success by being direct (although not harsh) very early on.

First, take a few minutes to talk about something other than work. Research shows that as little as a few minutes of upfront conversation unrelated to the matter at hand dramatically increases the level of collaboration going forward.

Next, ease into the conversation with a gentle warning that emotionally prepares the listener: “I have some unfortunate feedback to share with you.”

Proceed by sharing three pieces of information:

  1. Your attitude toward the employee
  2. The feedback itself
  3. How you feel about the feedback

For example, “I really value you as a member of our team, and would like to see you grow with the company. Nevertheless, I cannot promote you at this time. I feel bad, and wish this weren’t the case.”

Express empathy and solicit their reaction: “I’m sure this comes as a shock, and is disappointing. What’s going through your mind?”

Now comes the hard part. Sit quietly and listen attentively as the person responds.

When the employee is done speaking, fight the urge to explain the decision. Instead, summarize everything he or she has expressed—both the words and the context; confirm with the employee that you understood him or her correctly and that you have not missed anything. Doing this will help the employee feel understood, and, in turn, should help de-escalate the situation.

There is a good chance the employee’s initial response might be, “Why?!” So be prepared to support any evaluative statements (e.g., “You have been underperforming”) with objective data (e.g., “You have generated 20 percent less than your peers), and to be encouraging about his or her ability to control the outcome in the future (e.g., “I know you have it in you to make it up next year”).

One of the hazards to be wary of in this type of conversation is the conflation of your relationship with the decision at hand, e.g., “If you really appreciate me as a worker, you would promote me.” Should you encounter this, address both aspects of the assertion independently. First, address the relationship component (e.g., you must not appreciate me as a worker) until the matter is resolved. For example, “I do appreciate you. I’m sorry if I haven’t done enough to express that appreciation. I have tried, though, and will continue to try. Have there been other times you haven’t felt appreciated?” Once that has been addressed, share the reasons behind your feedback/ decision.

Throughout the conversation, provide an opportunity to ask questions and to share the employee’s perspectives (supported by data). Ensure that he or she understands the feedback and rationale, since understanding generally leads to acceptance. Eliciting his or her data ensures you haven’t overlooked important information when making your decision.

Close with empathy (“I’m sorry this is how things played out”), and with a positive outlook for the future (“Once you master this aspect of the job, I look forward to promoting you”). Most important, invite the employee to come back to you with further questions or thoughts on the topic.

Michael Rosenthal is managing partner of Consensus (, a negotiation and conflict resolution firm headquartered in New York City and with regional offices in Europe, India, and the Middle East. Consensus provides Talent Development services, including customized training and coaching, as well as Consulting and Peace Building services. For more information, contact 212.391.8100 or

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