Beverly Smallwood

Article Summary:

What to do with negative feedback in the workplace, and how to use it to your advantage.

Negative Feedback: Stop Passing the Buck

Employees today are being told to work smarter and harder… to do more with less. But what about their managers? Do they demonstrate taking responsibility, or do they play the blame game? Do they pass the buck? The answers to these questions are important, for the attitudes and behaviors of managers and supervisors will set the tone for the rest of the workforce.


1. Be willing to listen to bad news without “killing the messenger.”
Employees often complain to me that their concerns are stymied when they share them with their boss. In a misguided attempt to “keep everything positive”, the manager stifles communication by either glossing over the problem or by labeling the “messenger” as a negative person. Either way, the manager blocks important information that can be used for problem solving about how the department and the organization can be improved.

2. Distinguish between a “problem” and a “condition”.
Often manager pass the buck by saying that “they” need to do something about a situation, communicating that he or she has no control over it. Technically, this may be true. There will be some “conditions”…things that are outside the manager’s control. However, a “problem”, defined as something you can do something about, can often be found within that condition. The problem is…how can the manager work with employees to make the best of the circumstances over which they have no control (conditions)? How can they develop innovative ways to minimize the impact of negative conditions, continuing to provide the best service possible to both external and internal customers?

3. Avoid the blame game.
Leaders model mental and verbal habits for the rest of the work force. When a problem occurs, it is not important to determine who’s the most to blame. That only leads to more conflict and finger pointing. The key is, what can each person do to make the situation better…beginning with the leader.

4. Work with employees to develop an action plan for their concerns.
The supervisor may not (usually should not) simply take the problem and single-handedly develop a solution. However, he/she should available and active as a facilitator, coach, and resource person for problem-solving among those who are affected by the problem.

5. Let the buck stop here.
Be quick to acknowledge personal and departmental mistakes and to take responsibility for corrective action. Even when feedback comes from unwelcome sources or is delivered in a less-than-helpful way, the smart leader will see within that negative feedback an opportunity for improvement. Those who use that opportunity wisely…not passing the buck…can create a workplace in which workers are also inspired to openness, diligence, and innovation.

Beverly Smallwood is a licensed psychologist who has worked with Fortune 500, healthcare, and other organizations around the world for over 20 years. Her specialties are leadership development, employee retention, and personal resilience. She’s often featured in such national media as MSNBC, USA Today, Chicago Tribune, FOX, and New York Times. To contact her about speaking, consulting, or coaching, call 877-CAN LEAD (226-5323) or visit her website Magnetic Places, where you can also sign up for her free email newsletter.

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