The Right Way to Respond to Negative Employee Feedback

In an article packed with employee feedback stats, HR influencer Maren Hogan discusses the value of feedback in organizations:

“In a study of 469 business units ranging from retail stores to large manufacturing facilities, Gallup found that units with managers who received strengths feedback showed 8.9% greater profitability post-intervention relative to units in which the manager received no feedback.”

A survey from Harvard Business Review provided another statistic for Mrs. Hogan’s article: 92% of the respondents agreed with the assertion, “Negative (redirecting) feedback, if delivered appropriately, is effective at improving performance.”

Feedback is a key driver of performance and a great tool to improve your qualities as a leader. Negative feedback, in particular, can be wholesome as it alerts you to changes that have to be made.

But how do you handle negative feedback if you’re at the receiving end?

The difficulty with negative feedback is that it hurts.

And no, we can’t mend your feelings, but let’s offer some practical suggestions on how to use negative comments to improve performance.

Don’t take it personally

This should be the first commandment when you receive negative feedback. Ask yourself what a critical comment really means. Do negative comments necessarily mean that you’re a weak manager or an unpleasant person? Most probably not. Even if the wording is a little brutal, consider the feedback as honest input from people who care for their company. This includes colleagues, from their position and point of view, who offer their support to improve efficiency, performance and the workplace atmosphere.

In Positive, Negative, or No Feedback At All, you can read the results of a number of studies on the effects of different kinds of feedback in the workplace. The article focuses on manager feedback on employee performance, but vice versa, there aren't many differences. We’re all human and it’s natural to place more weight on negative comments than positive feedback, especially if the former is perceived as a personal attack.

As stated in the article: "It would appear that in the case of feedback, 'less is more' is actually not recommended and might have the most negative impact of all."

Don’t let it spoil your day

Don’t ignore negative comments, but don’t let them overshadow the positive either. And remember: managers who don’t shy away from negative feedback are seen as stronger than those who surround themselves with 'yes sayers'.

Let the comments sink in before responding.

Resist your impulse to respond immediately to negative comments. Take your time to ponder, see things from the commentator’s perspective and, decide on your strategy. But, do respond within a couple of days. Untreated negative emotions can quickly develop into a contagious disease, affecting the whole workplace.

Ask the right questions

How factual is the feedback? Is there any value in the criticism or is it only a personal view, a simple misunderstanding perhaps? Are more people in the organization convinced that there's a need for improvement? To evaluate the message it’s important to ask the right questions, such as:

  • Which examples do you have to support your comments?
  • How long has this been going on?
  • How and where does it impact the organization?
  • What are your suggestions for tackling this problem?

Asking questions as your first response to negative comments shows that you are interested and keeps you from blurting out the emotional reaction you may have been brooding and overthinking. What’s more: it helps you to fully understand and judge the problem and points how to look for possible solutions.

Take action

Negative feedback is an opportunity for change. And if there’s any value in the feedback, positive change should be the result. Quick, visible and tangible, clearly communicated.

Employees who complain about certain things always have their own ideas about how to improve them. Schedule a meeting and listen to their suggestions. Hold a brainstorming session if you want. Acknowledge their ideas. And if you think these are effective, implement them as soon as possible.

Don’t wait for feedback, ask for it

Never get negative feedback? That’s bad news. Employees who don’t even bother to tell you what they think is wrong have probably lost their heart for the organization. An open culture, where criticism is welcome and taken seriously, stimulates a feeling of co-ownership. Implementing tools to facilitate continuous employee feedback is a good practice, especially when people work remotely.


In a Wikipedia article about Happiness at work, two important, but not surprising, conclusions are drawn.

The first one is that management plays an important role in an employee's job satisfaction and happiness.

The second concludes that feelings are often hidden by employees and should be identified for effective communication in the workplace.

In fact, it’s all about communication. Make it easy and reward your employees for giving feedback. Communicate the right way if this feedback is negative by appreciating it as a tool for improvement, and act accordingly.