CPA INSIDER

Get more comfortable giving negative feedback

Specific examples let staff know what changes they need to make.
By Megan Hart

It's never fun to let a co-worker know they've fallen short. But while you may not look forward to giving negative feedback, it's something you'll have to do at some point in your career — especially if you're a manager. 

It can help to remember that, ultimately, negative feedback is meant to help others improve. "It's hard to help people grow when they don't know what areas they need to grow in," explained Josh Russell, CPA, a partner at Patterson, Prince & Associates in Florence, Ala.

When you avoid giving negative feedback, it usually leads to problems in the long run, he said. If a colleague or client repeatedly makes the same mistake, for example, it can be costly or time-consuming to continue correcting it, especially during busy times of the year.

Giving feedback — both negative and positive — can help your team run more smoothly, said Shari Harley, founder and president of Candid Culture, a business communication training and speaking firm based in Denver, and author of How to Say Anything to Anyone. While most people don't enjoy being told what they've done wrong, professionals do value growth, she said. And, she pointed out, feedback can help others in their careers.

Here are some tips to follow when delivering constructive criticism:

Lay the groundwork. When you take over a team or begin managing a new employee, explain that you'll be giving feedback regularly, said Harley, who spoke at the 2021 AICPA & CIMA ENGAGE conference. Start by saying something like, "My job is to help you be successful, and as a result, I'm going to give you regular, balanced feedback, the good and the not-so-good," she recommended. If your employees are expecting feedback from the beginning, they won't be caught off guard when they receive it.

Determine whether it's warranted. Before giving negative feedback, consider whether your employee understood your expectations, said Angela Wiggins, a leadership coach and facilitator from Nashville, Tenn. You could lose credibility by blaming an employee for an issue that started on your end.

However, if you've defined a staff member's performance goals well and they still continue to make mistakes, "then it's time for a development conversation to find out what's happening," Wiggins said. 

Prepare. Before giving negative feedback, write down what you want to say and run it by another manager or even someone outside your organization, Harley suggested. Ask whether they understand the message you're trying to convey and if they'd recommend making changes. An outsider might be able to offer clarity since they're not emotionally involved in the situation.

"Don't trust what you say while rehearsing the conversation in your head," she said, noting that thinking about a conversation is very different from actually having one.

Time it right. When you need to give negative feedback, follow the 24-hour/one-week guideline, Harley said — especially if you're feeling angry or emotional. Give yourself a day to process the situation and plan what to say, but don't wait longer than a week to have the conversation. If you wait too long to give negative feedback, it might look like you're holding a grudge, she said.

It's also important to deliver feedback shortly after a project or presentation, Wiggins said, to help them know which habits to repeat and which ones to discontinue.

Use specifics. Vague feedback sounds judgmental, and it's unlikely to lead to meaningful change, Harley said. For example, instead of telling an employee that they've been "careless," give a specific example of the behavior they need to change, such as turning materials in late. Feedback should be like healthy food: something substantive that promotes growth, she explained.

To prevent feedback from sounding like a personal attack, said Russell, a graduate of the 2020 AICPA Leadership Academy, talk about the work itself, and not the individual. Instead of saying, "You did this wrong," for example, you might say, "This number is wrong."

Or, he said, you can talk about how a mistake a staff member made could affect a client. For instance, if a staff member is making spelling or grammatical errors in emails to clients, you could say something like, "Clients appreciate professional, accurate, and succinct emails. When we send emails that have inaccurate information or are not grammatically correct, clients can lose confidence in us as their CPAs," he said. After using that as a starting point, you can offer suggestions on how the staff member can improve, such as using spell-check correctly or rereading emails before sending them.

Make sure your employees feel supported. Everyone makes mistakes, Russell said. Make sure employees understand that negative feedback is intended to help them grow, he said.

During these conversations, ask your employees whether they need more resources or support, Wiggins said.

Both Wiggins and Harley advocated giving balanced feedback: bringing up what the employee did well alongside what they need to improve. "The ego is really strong, and we take feedback really hard. That's especially true for highly professional, educated people," Harley said.

Give feedback in frequent, small doses. It's better to give your employees frequent feedback instead of letting it accumulate, Harley said. An advantage of giving feedback often is that it can keep you from overloading one conversation with too many issues. It can also allow employees to make small, incremental changes to their behavior.

Anticipate the response. When it comes to giving negative feedback, all you can do is try your best, Wiggins said. You can't control the other person's feelings.

Unfortunately, it's likely some employees will get defensive — even if you have their best interest at heart. And that's not a bad thing, Harley said. In fact, it usually indicates that they care deeply about doing a good job. Before giving negative feedback, she said, consider the objections you might get in return and prepare your responses.

If you're anticipating a particularly difficult or important discussion, suggest a two-part conversation, allowing your employee a week or so to process the information you shared in the first meeting, Harley said. This will give employees a chance to regroup and continue the discussion if they want to. "Make sure the door isn't shut after one conversation," she said.

Address your anxieties. Don't be afraid to be upfront with your employees if you're uncomfortable giving negative feedback, Harley said. You might say something like, "This conversation may be uncomfortable for both of us, but I care about you and your career, so I hope it's OK if I speak freely," for instance.

Megan Hart is a freelance writer based in Wisconsin. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Courtney Vien, a JofA senior editor, at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com.

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