We all know how it feels to receive negative feedback — but how does giving negative feedback impact the person delivering it? The authors conducted a series of studies with nearly 500 leaders and found that the impact of delivering negative feedback depended on how empathetic the leaders were. They found that high-empathy leaders became less effective at core leadership tasks after giving negative feedback (especially if the recipient had a strong negative reaction), while low-empathy leaders actually became more effective. Based on these findings, the authors offer several strategies for organizations to better support both high- and low-empathy leaders, including encouraging more-empathetic leaders to take breaks after giving negative feedback and training less-empathetic leaders on techniques for delivering feedback more compassionately.
Sharing negative feedback is a critical component of effective leadership — but while the benefits of receiving constructive criticism are clear, it’s less obvious how giving such feedback impacts leaders. While some leaders enjoy giving negative feedback, one survey found that 44% of managers find it stressful or difficult.
This isn’t just about feeling a little uncomfortable. We conducted a series of studies with nearly 500 leaders from a wide range of industries exploring the hidden consequences of giving negative feedback. We found that for some leaders, their effectiveness took a significant hit immediately after they gave the feedback.
Why might this be? Our research suggests that a key factor is empathy. While the ability to empathize is a critical leadership skill in many contexts, we found that high-empathy leaders actually became less effective after giving negative feedback, while low-empathy leaders became more effective. Interestingly, prior studies have shown that empathetic leaders are better at giving negative feedback helpfully. Their ability to anticipate how the recipient is likely to think and feel, and to express genuine care and compassion, make these leaders more likely to communicate the feedback in a constructive manner. And yet our studies demonstrated that the leaders who give feedback that will be most beneficial to the recipient are likely to become less effective themselves after giving it.
To better understand the factors driving this phenomenon, we asked leaders to report their levels of distress and attentiveness after giving negative feedback. We found that the higher they scored on standard questionnaires designed to measure empathy, the more distressed and inattentive they became after giving the feedback, leading them to report that they became less effective at their jobs and less able to inspire their teams. In a follow-up study, we also found that the more upset the recipients of the feedback seemed to be, the worse high-empathy leaders performed at tasks designed to measure critical leadership skills such as time management and the ability to focus. This makes sense: Since being more empathetic essentially makes leaders more likely to “catch” others’ emotions, a strong negative emotional reaction from the recipients could spill over onto the high-empathy leaders, affecting their own emotional states and thus their performance.
Taken together, our research suggests that for more-empathetic leaders, providing negative feedback can be a stressful, energy-depleting experience, which in turn can compromise their subsequent effectiveness at leadership tasks that require energy and attention. In contrast, less empathetic leaders are less likely to take their employees’ perspectives or emotionally register how receiving harsh feedback might make people feel bad. This means they are not as affected by the negative emotions that employees experience when receiving negative feedback. As a result, these leaders reported higher energy levels and, in some cases, exhibited improved performance after giving negative feedback — suggesting that for less empathetic leaders, giving negative feedback can actually be an energizing experience, rather than a depleting one.
Different Leaders Benefit from Different Forms of Support
In light of these findings, how can organizations empower leaders to give helpful feedback while minimizing the toll it can take on their mental state and effectiveness?
The first step is to acknowledge that high- and low-empathy leaders face different challenges, and thus will likely benefit from different forms of support. Importantly, while in an ideal world, we might wish for leadership to be exclusively the domain of the highly empathetic, the reality is that most organizations are likely to employ a mix of higher- and lower-empathy managers and executives. Furthermore, there is some evidence to suggest that lower levels of empathy are more common among senior leaders than in the general population, so it’s a relevant consideration to keep in mind when developing policies designed to support a broad range of leaders.
Strategies for higher-empathy leaders
Organizations should acknowledge the energy and performance costs of giving negative feedback and explore strategies to minimize those costs. For example, one approach is for leaders to intentionally carve out time to recover after providing negative feedback. This might mean providing this feedback before a scheduled break or at the end of the workday to give themselves time to recuperate before taking on important decisions or tasks. Alternatively, if taking a break is unrealistic, leaders can focus on tasks that require less energy and attention, since these are tasks for which their performance may be less likely to suffer immediately after providing feedback.
Another approach is to proactively reduce the impact of giving tough feedback by following these discussions with tasks that leaders expect to be enjoyable or energizing, such as networking, volunteering, or working on a passion project. This can help replenish leaders’ energy banks, so they are better equipped to tackle the remainder of their workday.
Strategies for lower-empathy leaders
Our research suggests that giving feedback is less likely to harm performance for these leaders. However, prior research has shown that more-empathetic people generally provide negative feedback in a manner that feels more useful to recipients than less empathetic people do. Coupled with our findings that less empathetic leaders are more likely to be energized by giving negative feedback, this suggests that organizations could potentially fall into a vicious cycle, in which those who are most excited to give negative feedback are, on average, the worst at giving it.
To address this, organizations should provide training and coaching for lower-empathy leaders on how to be helpful and compassionate when delivering feedback. There are several specific skills and tactics that these trainings can help leaders cultivate:
Developing these skills and following best practices can go a long way in helping leaders give feedback more effectively. But alongside these efforts, our research suggests that organizations should also incorporate training designed to help leaders recognize and manage the emotional demands of providing negative feedback. This will not only benefit the well-being and performance of high empathy leaders, but will also help the leaders who are best-equipped to provide helpful feedback feel more comfortable giving it — ultimately benefiting leaders, their employees, and entire organizations.