The 7 Stages of Negative Feedback

Ever been in a situation where you’ve had to give professional negative feedback or receive it yourself? If you’ve been in either situation – it’s tough.  From both sides of the table.  In my career I’ve had to tell employees that their performance isn’t meeting expectations and it always leaves me with an upset stomach.  I can’t imagine that on the other side of the table, the employee feeling any better.

In my many years of management, unfortunately, I’ve faced both the giving and receiving of negative feedback.  And I’ve come to the conclusion that there are very similar reactions to negative feedback.  We can call them “stages”.  And depending on where the person ends their “stage of negative feedback” depends on if they are successful.  
(These will sound very familiar to the 7 stages of grief – and they are.  In my opinion, when a person faces a serious blow to their professional bubble, for most good employees, it shakes them to the core.  After “the meeting” an employee really has to process the events that just occurred. )
Stage 1: Shock & Denial
Once the feedback is received the first stage of shock and denial.  This sometimes occurs during “the meeting.” The employee denies the events, or makes excuses, or simply is wide-eyed and quiet.  They are in disbelief that it’s occurring.  
Stage 2: Pain & Guilt
This is where the crying usually starts.  An employee is hurt.  They feel personally attacked, even though there’s nothing personal about “the meeting” (hopefully).  And despite the best efforts to help the employee, the employee begins to beat themselves up for the actions (or inaction).  Apologies fly, because they don’t know any way else to react. 
Stage 3: Anger & Bargaining
Hopefully this doesn’t occur during “the meeting” but occasionally it will.  Usually this is when the employee reflects on the meeting and starts getting mad about it.  “Fine…” “Whatever…” “It’s just a job…” They start saying to themselves “I’ll just do my job, and that’s it!”  Or go to the extreme of looking for another job.  They want to justify that the reason they aren’t doing well is the fault of the company, not them.  Essentially they are trying to protect themselves from criticism in the future.  They need to process the negative feedback. In whatever way, they are angry and want to justify the anger. 
Stage 4: Depression & Reflection
The employee is quiet.  Sometimes they come in quietly, do their job, and leave without anyone noticing.  They spend their free time and nights thinking about the feedback.  What they could have done. Or didn’t do. What they did wrong. They beat themselves up and feel like a failure for the actions (or inaction).  They reflect upon the actions and/or mistakes they made. 
Stage 5: The Upward Turn
After reflection, the employee decides they can’t dwell upon the past.  They decide to not allow themselves to be beat up or beat themselves up and they make a decision to really make some changes. 
Stage 6: Reconstruction
They put the “upward turn” into action.  Making changes for the better:  in the way they process information, utilizing better resources, or small personality adjustments.  
Stage 7: Acceptance & Hope
Finally they’ve accepted their errors as a “good thing.” The employee realizes “the meeting” had a purpose and helped to identify the opportunity to better themselves.  They take the bad with the good and look forward towards meeting expectations and moving forward. 
After receiving negative feedback it’s our hope that every employee reached Stages 5, 6, & 7.  This is the ultimate goal and the best opportunity for success for both the company and employee.  To be honest, in my career I think it’s about 50% of my negative feedback meetings have ended with success.  For the most part, most employees I’ve had dealings with have never been able to get past the Stages 1, 2, 3, or 4.  How can we as HR Managers and/or employers help them through these stages?  Here are some tips:  
Leaving an employee alone without anyone to rely on, is a sure way to lose them.  Most employees want to be part of the corporate culture and especially after receiving negative feedback, they’ll want to be around those who believe in them and will help them to succeed.  Think of this as the “teacher putting the bad kid desk next to the good kid desk.”  Find a positive influence to “mentor” them that can help them through these stages. This mentor can be brought in on the issues and essentially be a “counselor” for the employee.  
Help them along by giving them a road map.  If they are under performing they’ll want guidance on how to better perform.  Don’t just tell them what to do, teach them.  If they know there’s a light a the end of the tunnel, they are more apt to look forward past “reflection.”  Give them a “game plan of success.”
Positive Feedback
As they move through these stages, you will hopefully begin to see some positive changes.  Encourage and support this change with positive feedback.  “By the way, just wanted to tell you…”  “Great job on redoing that project…” Effectively you want to make it clear to the employee “You’ve changed for the better and we noticed!”  
By becoming better educated on these stages and how humans internalize negative feedback, we as managers (and as employees) can become more effective in dealing with these situations.  Whether from one end of the table or the other, negative feedback can be rough for everyone.  Recognize the severity it can place on the receiver and help them through it as best we can. 

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