How managers can keep feedback positive – even when addressing negative behavior
  • leadership
  • Blog post

How managers can keep feedback positive – even when addressing negative behavior

Suppose you have an employee with a serious performance issue, serious enough to get them fired if things don’t improve. You’re not excited about giving this person negative feedback. But you know you’re doing them a disservice if you don’t.

So you tell them: “You’re not meeting expectations, and your future here could be in jeopardy if you don’t improve your organizational skills. I don’t like being negative, but I feel that I owe you the truth.”

Did you do the right thing? Behavioral research suggests that most likely, you didn’t — even though you were honest and showed you cared about this employee’s career.

High performance

Let’s look at some of that research. In one study, researchers from the University of Michigan Business School investigated a real-world case — a large IT company where some teams performed much better than others — and found that positive communication contributes to high performance.

What caused this? The researchers found that top teams made five positive statements for every negative comment. Low-performing teams made three negative statements for every positive one. The researchers concluded that these behavior patterns helped cause the top teams’ high performance, and vice versa.

Other research shows that when you frame difficult messages in a positive way, two things happen:  First, people interpret the message far more accurately; it isn’t distorted by the defensiveness and anxiety that criticism can trigger. And second, people are more likely to act on your message, willingly change their behavior, and achieve better results.

Life or death

The power of positive communication was also demonstrated dramatically in a medical study involving patients who really needed to change.

People who had recently undergone heart surgery were split into two groups. One group was essentially told: “Either you improve your unhealthy lifestyle, or you’re going to die.” Doctors then laid out specific actions the patient could take to help turn things around.

You’d think this group of patients would change their behavior and get healthier. After all, they understood the problem, knew the consequences of inaction, and had a clear plan. But only 10% did so.

With another group of patients, doctors reframed the message. They were just as candid about the need for change, and they provided the same advice.

But there was one key difference: They changed the message from a negative threat – “you need to change or die” – to a positive opportunity – for example, “We want to help you live to see your kids get married.”

This time, 60% of patients took their doctor’s advice, changed their behavior, and improved their health.

The positive message was six times more effective than the negative one!

Frame it right

You can take a similar approach when you’re delivering feedback to an employee whose performance is falling down. Don’t sugarcoat the message or leave any doubt about what needs to happen. But frame your feedback in a positive way.

In the scenario we described earlier, you had an underperformer who was at risk of being fired. In your feedback, you framed the message as a threat by saying that if they didn’t improve, they’d lose their job. The research shows that you’d get far better results if you explained the problem truthfully but framed the overall message as an opportunity. You might have said, “Your organizational skills don’t meet our standards and need to improve. I want to help you do that so you can keep your job and have a successful career at our company.”

There’s a critical difference in language here. You’re still being clear about what needs to happen and what’s at stake. But instead of casting the outcome as a threat – you will lose your job, you may not be able to pay your mortgage – you’re framing it as an opportunity – you can have a great career, you can keep your family prosperous and happy.


This blog entry is adapted from the Rapid Learning module “Coaching: Framing Constructive Feedback in a Positive Way.” If you’re a Rapid Learning customer, you can watch the video here. If you’re not, but would like to see this video (or any of our other programs), request a demo and we’ll get you access.

The blog post and Rapid Learning video module are based on the following research study and book:

Losada, M., and Heaphy, E. (2004). The role of positivity and connectivity in the performance of business teams: A nonlinear dynamics model. American Behavioral Scientist, 47(6), 740-765.

Cameron, K. S. (2012). Positive leadership: Strategies for extraordinary performance. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

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