A Better Way to Deliver Bad News

Giving feedback to employees, particularly when their performance falls short of expectations, is one of the most critical roles a manager can play. It is often the most dreaded. With emotions running high on both sides of the table, what could be an opportunity to resolve critical issues often turns into a very unpleasant, unproductive conversation. By changing the mind-set with which you develop and deliver negative feedback, says Professor Jean-François Manzoni in this recent Harvard Business Review article, you can greatly increase the odds that the process will be a success.

by Jean-François Manzoni
Last Updated: 23 Jul 2013

Subordinates need accurate and timely feedback in order to improve. Managers are particularly well placed to provide such feedback, as they have a better view of the big picture and their experiences should help them separate better the most relevant causes of performance.

In practice, however, giving feedback is not managers’ favourite activity, especially corrective feedback. Bosses’ first concern is that such discussions are often unpleasant. Emotions can run high, tempers can flare. More daunting still, these discussions often make things worse rather than better. Subordinates’ response often leads the boss to push harder and harder, which can result in either or both of two bad outcomes: The boss holds his ground and ends up making very critical comments, or decides to fold at some point leaving the issues unresolved. In both cases the two parties exit the meeting worse off than they entered it, professionally as well as personally.

There is no denying that subordinate defensiveness can play a significant role in these escalations. But so does the mindset with which the boss approaches the situation. In this article, Jean-François Manzoni, Associate Professor of Accounting and Control, describes how many managers approach “giving feedback” with a narrow and binary mindset that then remains frozen through the encounter. Based on a discussion of the causes of this phenomenon, the article proposes a more productive way for managers to think of, and approach, the difficult task of giving corrective feedback to employees.

Harvard Business Review, September 2002

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