A few years ago, Doctrine Man published a popular list that “decoded” officer evaluation reports (OERs). The sad thing about his humorous jab at OERs, though, is that it wasn’t too far off from reality. Generally speaking, we in the military don’t always do a great job of giving folks the cold hard truth about their performance. Many leaders spend the majority of their career with an inflated view of themselves and do not give adequate attention to those areas in which they need improvement. When we fail to provide subordinates with negative feedback, their professional growth is left up to chance; as a result, we see toxic and weak leaders rise through the system, thus damaging the effectiveness of the overall Army.
As a 2014 article from the Harvard Business Review points out, honest and candid feedback is uncomfortable and not that easy to give. But it doesn’t need to be.
In his book Stop Talking and Start Communicating, Geoffrey Tumlin provides us with the following guidelines for sitting down and having those tough conversations:
- Have a simple message and provide examples. Telling someone that they are a weak staff officer, bad platoon leader, or an underperforming NCO doesn’t really help the situation and doesn’t provide them with specific things that they can work on improving. Negative feedback should open the door for solutions. Give subordinates specific examples of areas in which they are failing. For example, instead of telling someone they aren’t that great at public speaking, point out the specific issues you’ve witnessed when they talk in front of a group. Tumlin emphasizes that, “A simple, specific message with an example or two to illustrate the problematic behavior will help you achieve your conversational goal.”
- Discuss the incident or behavior, not the person. Avoid telling people what they are (poor leader, hothead, dirtbag, dishonest) and focus the conversation on what they did or did not do (late to meetings or formations, failed to plan, interrupts people).
- Separate intentions from perceptions. The quickest way to make a subordinate’s defenses go up is to make an assumption about their intentions. Everyone has blind spots, and they may not realize that their actions (with good intentions) are being perceived in a different light by others. An NCO might think they are being helpful in meetings by bringing up issues no one else thought of, but to everyone else in the room, they come across as a know-it-all. Tumlin recommends using the phrase, “You probably didn’t intend for X, but that’s how I perceived it.”
- Don’t dilute your message with a pile of positive statements. Because giving negative feedback is hard to do, sometimes we feel the need to soften the blow by throwing some positive statements into the conversation. Avoid making comments like, “LT Smith, you’ve missed every deadline I’ve assigned you… but your PowerPoint slides are always right on the mark!” Adding a bit of positive feedback into a conversation where the goal is to address a negative incident or behavior only sends mixed signals to the person on the receiving end.
- Don’t worry if the initial conversation is short. Avoid spending additional time addressing other topics or letting your mouth run. This has the potential to add white noise to your message and further dilutes the impact on the person receiving the feedback. Consider scheduling a follow-up conversation so that the individual has time to think about the behaviors you have addressed and can develop their own solution before you discuss the problem again.
Giving negative feedback is no easy task, but it’s imperative that we provide our subordinates with an honest assessment of their performance so that they have the opportunity to grow as leaders within the profession of arms. While it may feel better in the short term to avoid those uncomfortable conversations, in the long term, we do a disservice to those we lead, our organizations, and our Army.
Below are a few links for further reading on effectively providing feedback:
Stop Pretending that You Can’t Give Candid Feedback
12 Tips for Effectively Counseling Your Subordinates by the Military Leader
Counseling Training for New Leaders by CompanyCommand.mil and PlatoonLeader.mil
Turning Performance Counseling into a Conversation
The Assumptions That Make Giving Tough Feedback Even Tougher
4 thoughts on “The Art of Giving Negative Feedback”
Joe, thanks for a concise list of actionable behaviors I can use! One quick question, you say we should avoid mixing messages by including positive with negative feedback; have you read or been taught anything to the contrary? I was taught (by a mil school) to package negative feedback in a “compliment sandwich” to maintain motivation. Do you completely disagree with that concept?
I think it comes down to messaging. Why sandwich comments, when the goal of your conversation is to change of behavior? I agree with Tumlin that it dilutes your feedback when you throw in positive sprinkles. What’s been your experience?
Even if not verbally expressed, a strong leader knows how to counsel a subordinate on performance shortcomings and still evoke confidence in the soldier. It’s all about ensuring that expectations are clearly expressed. ‘Boggins, you may be a highly valued team member…However comma, this situation will be recitified’. Every situation and individual is handled differently, however your job is to mold, to shape, to mentor. To be perceived and seen as fair but firm. And you can do that with a smile on your face, a wink and a scowl. On the battlefield, your message may initially be delivered with just the latter and a bark.