The importance of feedbacks… especially when it is negative ones

By Leonardo Paoletti – Partner, AdActa Consulting*

Do you remember the frame of the movie “The Devil wears Prada” which portrays Miranda busy to review a new fashion collection? Aided by a system developed to decode Miranda’ non-verbal communication, her collaborators make out what she thinks about the new creations: “she taps with her right index = she does not like it” or “she slightly raises her upper lip = not bad”. Well, I think this is a truthful portrayal of the attitude some bosses show towards their employees.

Do you already know what your boss thinks about you?

One of the things usually causing people to experience overall unease is the awkward question: “what does your boss think about you and the quality of your work?” Few people can confidently claim they know exactly what their bosses think about them; many simply make speculations and voice their personal impressions, others just do not have the faintest idea.

When we turn our attention to Italy, one of the things generally causing people to feel awkward is asking their boss to give them an overall feedback about their performance and, first and foremost, about their behaviours and fit with the boss’s expectations.

People do not leave the company they work for, they leave their boss

A few years ago, I read the results of an interesting survey carried out overseas, which I regret I did not print out because it was no longer to be found, wherein they maintained that when people give their notice in, it is not the company they leave but the boss.

While it is a rather impactful statement, I believe all of us are ready to endorse it: I may work for an old-fashioned, not very cool company but if my boss treats me kind and I trust him/her, I am definitely more satisfied than if I worked for the most glamorous company ever and I had to report to a boss I do not keep in any regard and who does not lead the least effort to connect with me and my performance (especially when he/she e-mails me on Saturday night demanding that I do my best to solve last-minute problems and not minding to prevent the same problem from arising the following year!).

The importance of the feedback as a management tool

Accordingly, in the eyes of a boss, a properly framed feedback given at least once a year is not one of the bureaucratic tasks demanded by the slave drivers of the HR department, but a management tool of paramount importance, probably the most important ever.

The feedback must be framed consistently because collaborators are not happy when they are given a piecemeal or vague feedback from a neglectful boss who continues to put off the interview whenever a new emergency arises or when, after finally scheduling a meeting with them, the talk is interrupted by at least four calls (and he does not even bother to turn his mobile off!).

Therefore, it comes as no surprise that I hear words like report card, farce, fooling around, etc. or other derogatory terms dumped during the yearly or six-monthly feedback interview.

Feedbacks are to be regular, timely and focused

But let me pour salt in the managerial wound: as a boss I cannot confine myself to meeting up with my collaborators once or twice a year to give them a feedback, except when it is logistically complicated. Assessment must be continuous and keyed to the employees’ actual performance. Of course, when I notice a collaborator’s untoward behaviour, I cannot wait until the six-monthly meeting to correct and explain the right behavior, I need to take actions right away.

Let’s see an example…

Congratulations, good job! I like particularly how you spotted the problem and the point you made in relation to the tricky issues revolving around the product launch. Next time I think you could expand this aspect in greater depth!”.

Do you like that?

I personally think so because it is not the stereotyped “Good job” usually acknowledged in positive situations even if the boss did not carefully peruse the report but simply noted that the document:

  1. was delivered
  2. on time
  3. and it featured the information needed in the afternoon

The one I offered, instead, is the feedback from a person who has not only read and examined the report but has identified the strengths as well as recommended some improvement clues to treasure up for future projects!

Too difficult to do? I don’t think so.

It goes without saying that a positive feedback is easy to give, isn’t it?

You’ll never know how many bosses waste or even jeopardize “easy shots”, namely positive feedbacks!

A negative feedback calls for even more attention

A negative feedback implies even more attention because it is like setting your foot on a minefield; it requires special attention in order not to hurt your collaborator’s self-esteem. Justified by numberless deadlines or top priority matters, the boss usually dodges, postpones the feedback moment or resorts to irony and often drops general remarks on his/her way to a meeting (thus taking advantage of an open escape route!).

Watch out and think about a child’s most frequent behaviour when regularly ignored by a teacher or, even worse, by his/her parents: he/she exasperates conflict and negative behaviours in pursuit of attention which, though negative it may be, is anyway attention: being reprimanded is better than being ignored.

Therefore, do not pretend you do not see wrong behaviours, do not put off, do not ignore: a wrong feedback is better than no feedback at all!

Ignoring people may cause even worse damage.

The 4 must-have conditions to ward off catastrophe

Coping with negative feedbacks, criticism in a confident, successful way is a matter of personal skills and method, too.

Let me draw your attention to four must-have conditions to avoid disaster, irrespective of personal skills:

  • Responsiveness: do not wait too long! Avoid the typical reaction: “You could have told me earlier”, or the remark, “I don’t remember, when”?
  • Impartiality: I need to describe a negative behaviour consistently by providing evidence and anticipating repercussions. Avoid generic comments such as “You are always too aggressive!”
  • Solution: figuring out a working method, a coping strategy saves you from the pointless “it is true/it is not true” and projects you into the future; work out shared to-dos to avoid it should happen again.
  • Keep calm: the critical issue is not the other person’s response but ours. I may not like my collaborator, he/she causes my blood pressure to rise, I fear I am about to lose my temper and to say/do/threaten to do things I will regret. In total fairness, we do not worry that collaborators vent it out, that is something we can manage, we are afraid of losing our temper!

In this regard, there are techniques and methods to act “on the safe side”, but it is hard to sum them up in a single article….

Hopefully my article has helped some bosses gain awareness of the importance of the feedback: far from being the last concern of a boss, it is an all-important feature likely to undermine the very essence of a boss’s role if overlooked!

To conclude, let me add that the feedback is a top priority, for sure more urgent than replying an e-mail you received from the CEO who is looking for data he could comfortably read in the report you sent him the previous week …

Got it?


*Adacta is a team of HR professionals specialized in behavioural coaching, managerial development, individual coaching and successful teambuilding.  If you wish to read the article in Italian, please tap here