Giving Critical Feedback Is Even Harder Remotely

by Therese Huston
January 26, 2021

Delivering constructive feedback is nerve-wracking in the best of times — most managers don’t want to crush their employees’ spirits. These tough conversations are even harder to have as multiple crises and their side effects wear on, which can make the negativity bias that often accompanies them even worse. To top it all off, a change in venue from in-person to remote removes the nuance that can help soften the blow of bad news.

Negativity bias shapes how people hear feedback. As Roy Baumeister and John Tierney explain in their recent book, The Power of Bad, it’s the “universal tendency for negative events and emotions to affect us more strongly than positive ones.” In other words, we ruminate over criticism and brush past praise.

Negativity bias can be a challenge in any feedback conversation, but it’s particularly problematic right now because of the chronic stress many people are experiencing as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. Research has shown that chronic stress is tied to a stronger negativity bias. Right now, in what has been a trying time for so many people, employees may be even more likely to focus on the negative in your message. If you say, “I need you to redo that report,” they might hear, “Your work is really slipping,” or worse yet, “I’m not sure you belong in this job.” You’re trying to help them improve, but they think you’re judging them, and harshly.

Managers I’ve interviewed also note that when they’re giving feedback in person, they can adjust the context to communicate the severity of the news. One mid-level manager at a tech company with an open office plan used to pull employees into a focus room when he wanted a private feedback conversation. He’d pick a room with comfy, colorful chairs and a low coffee table if he wanted the environment to feel relaxed and casual, and he’d pick a conference room with chairs around a big formal table if he wanted to communicate a more serious tone. With his employees now working at home, he can’t control the setting in that way.

Many managers now find themselves in this position, no longer able to rely on those nonverbal cues when having tough conversations. The stress that’s increasing negativity bias and the circumstances that are keeping the workplace at home are likely to persist for a while longer. Taking a few steps to be more strategic about how you deliver constructive feedback can help prevent negativity bias and a digital venue from distorting how your employees receive your feedback.

Start by asking questions. Begin your constructive feedback conversation by asking the other person about their perspective. You might ask, “What did you think of that report?” or even simpler, “How did that go?” You want to learn about their experience and what they think of their work — maybe they’ve never worked so hard on a three-page document. It will be easier to raise your concern if they’ve already voiced it.

What if they say they thought it went well and don’t voice any concerns? You might be dealing with an “unaware underperformer.” If you observed the problem directly, you can say, “I ask because I noticed X,” and if you didn’t observe the problem yourself, try, “I ask because I heard X.” In either case, you’re hoping the employee is willing to brainstorm ways to handle the situation differently in the future. Be clear that they’re being evaluated on their results, not their effort.

Offer appreciation before you offer criticism. In their ongoing research, Leslie John, Alison Wood Brooks, and Jaewon Yoon at Harvard Business School have found through manipulating the order in which participants receive feedback that individuals are more receptive to constructive criticism if they’re first told what specifically they did well. Your goal here isn’t a hand-waving, “You do good work.” Instead, make it as concrete as the concern you’re about to raise — for example, “It’s clear you have a mastery of the data.” If there isn’t much you can praise about the work, praise their willingness to keep improving.

State your good intentions. John has also found that explicitly stating your good intentions goes a long way toward improving how the other person hears bad news. Try, “I’m in your corner,” or “I know you’re trying to improve your writing and I want to help you get there,” or even, “I want to be able to use this report as a model for the rest of the team.”

Clarify and contrast. Helene Lollis, the CEO of Pathbuilders, a firm that develops woman leaders, finds that contrasting statements can bring clarity. After you’ve raised your concern or suggestion, follow it with, “What I mean is X. What I don’t mean is Y.” For instance, “What I am saying is that I’m concerned you don’t have the bandwidth right now. What I am not saying is that you lack the ability. I know this would be easy for you under other circumstances.” You can pre-emptively address any negative spins that the other person might entertain.

Have the other person state their key takeaways. Save time at the end of the conversation to ask, “What are your top three takeaways?” It may feel redundant, but you’ll learn if they’re taking a negative nosedive, and if so, you can reframe the message. Sandy Anuras, VP of Global Marketing Technology at Expedia Group, observes that when you’re giving feedback remotely, it’s far too easy for the other person to end a call more abruptly than they ever would in person. If they urgently need to get off the call, ask them to email you by the end of the day with their three takeaways. It’s better to correct any misunderstandings in the moment, but the same day is better than letting them ruminate overnight or over the weekend.

While the ongoing stress brought about by the pandemic can make your employees take constructive feedback even harder than usual, taking care to deliver it with clarity and sensitivity will help them focus on the reality of your message, even in a remote environment.