“We all need people who will give us feedback. That’s how we improve.” – Bill Gates

“So, what do you think?” the plans chief asked us as we gathered around the map table.

His team was in the final stages of preparing to present the scheme of maneuver they’d devised for the forthcoming operation. It was a bold plan, one that required our aircraft to fly deep into hostile territory beyond their normal range. But there was a flaw. Getting there was the easy part; returning would require establishing a forward area refueling point (what is commonly referred to as a FARP) at a point past our farthest line of advance. But there was no refuel plan. At all. There were options available that might mitigate the risk, but none of those had been explored. The big blue arrow that stretched across the display ignored the reality of the logistical limitations of their plan.

They’d already received the approval of the commanding general, and some had even received formal recognition as a result of their work. As a former planner myself, I understood the pride of ownership that comes with such an effort, which is substantial. But I also knew that there was a limited window of opportunity to address the oversight before they were briefing the subordinate commanders, some of whom were certain to notice the same fatal flaw.

“I have a question,” I said. “Where will you position the FARP for the return leg?” By posing the question, I hoped to give the planners an opportunity to see the problem for themselves. As a group, they paused and considered my question. The sustainment planner was the first to respond. “We’ll have them land at this airfield. We think it’s abandoned, and we can assume there’s fuel still in the underground tanks.” The aviation planner, somewhat annoyed for failing to recognize the flaw himself, was quick to respond: “No, there’s no way to test the fuel and we have to assume it’s been contaminated.” As their discussion went back and forth, the planners began working toward a solution together.

Negative feedback is a simple fact of life. Offering it can be both difficult and uncomfortable, but it’s fundamental to learning and growth, productivity and engagement. Withhold that feedback, and you only preserve the status quo. Make negative feedback the norm, and you can kill an organization and ruin the people inside it. I could have simply pointed out the flaw in their plan and scolded them for not being more attentive to the details. But, in doing so, I would have put them on the defensive and denied them the opportunity to learn from their mistake.

So, what do you do?

Start with The 3 B’s of Performance Counseling

First, I start with the “Three Bs” of performance counseling. They served me well through a long career and, while not always appreciated outside the military, are just as important.

Be direct.

Don’t hold back. The only thing worse than sugar coating negative feedback—false praise is quickly seen as disingenuous and erodes trust over time—is beating around the bush, waiting too long, or being too vague. The same holds true when you try to sandwich negative feedback within positive: “Your work on this was superb, but you write at a third-grade level. And, hey, how about those Bears?” The direct approach is always the best approach.

Be constructive.

Negative feedback given in large doses or on a regular basis can be soul crushing. If someone feels like they can never do anything right, they won’t. When providing negative feedback, do so in a way that helps them to learn, that shows them the path to what right looks like. As a result, people will tend to be both more receptive and more responsive.

Be realistic.

People need to understand the consequences of their actions and why change (and growth) is necessary. Shielding someone from the implications of their choices is as bad as offering false praise. They need to understand how their actions affect others and the organization, and the consequences if those actions continue. Be as specific as you are direct.

Remember that Dialogue is Crucial

Second, spur a dialogue. Feedback is best when it’s part of a loop. After delivering negative feedback, prompt a discussion and be prepared for it.

Listen to what people have to say.

You won’t always know what’s going on behind the scenes, either at work or in someone’s personal life. Hear people out. Make sure you have all the information you need before making any decisions. Try to empathize; put yourself in their shoes. That empathy will ensure a more open and honest dialog and helps to cement the trust necessary to maintain a positive working environment.

Ask questions that prompt reflection.

In the example I described initially, I could have easily just pointed out the fatal flaw in the plan and left them to sort out the mess. But, aside from the negative reaction I wanted to avoid, doing so would not have been particularly constructive. When possible, it’s far better to ask the kinds of questions that give pause and reflection, that allow people to solve their own problems.

Don’t make it personal.

Never make negative feedback personal. That’s the fastest way to shut down a conversation and build a defensive wall. It’s never personal, even when it clearly is. It’s about helping the other person grow and develop; it’s about making the organization run better; it’s about building a better team. Facts, not emotions, are what drives improvement. Focus on them.

Don’t Forget Your Role as a Coach

Ultimately, your goal as a leader is to build a winning team. As a coach, negative feedback is inevitable. But you want that feedback to help the team, not tear it apart. So, when you do have to give negative feedback, wear your coach’s hat and consider everything from the direction you want to take your team. If you want to win, you do that as a team with everyone contributing and focused on the end goal.



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Steve Leonard is a former senior military strategist and the creative force behind the defense microblog, Doctrine Man!!. A career writer and speaker with a passion for developing and mentoring the next generation of thought leaders, he is a senior fellow at the Modern War Institute; the co-founder of the national security blog, Divergent Options, and the podcast, The Smell of Victory; co-founder and board member of the Military Writers Guild; and a member of the editorial review board of the Arthur D. Simons Center’s Interagency Journal. He is the author of five books, numerous professional articles, countless blog posts, and is a prolific military cartoonist.