The Downside of Giving Negative Feedback at Work

furious boss yelling at employee
Topic(s): feedback, job performance, leadership, personality
Publication: Journal of Applied Psychology (2021)
Article: Pain or Gain? Understanding How Trait Empathy Impacts Leader Effectiveness Following the Provision of Negative Feedback
Authors: L.S. Simon, C.C. Rosen, R.S. Gajendran, S. Ozgen, E.S. Corwin
Reviewed by: Mona Bapat, PhD

Providing negative feedback to employees comes with the territory of being a leader or manager. Employees are not always going to perform perfectly and unless critical feedback is given, professional growth and improved performance cannot occur. However, little is known about the consequences that leaders face after giving negative feedback to their employees. Researchers (Simon et al., 2021) conducted several studies to determine what happens. 


One factor the researchers examined was empathy of the leaders. Empathy is the propensity to have concern for others, to imagine what it’s like to be in their shoes, and to want to alleviate their negative feelings.  

The researchers found that for leaders with high empathy, giving negative feedback was associated with subsequent distress, and these leaders then perceived themselves to be ineffective leaders. However, for leaders with low empathy, giving negative feedback did not affect their ability to subsequently stay engaged at work. These leaders also perceiving themselves as effective leaders, even when the feedback recipients expressed anger in response. 


Given that providing negative feedback is necessary, it is important for organizations to understand that for some leaders, doing so could hinder their effectiveness. Therefore, the authors say that performance management systems should involve frequent conversations regarding both positive and negative feedback. This exposure will help employees acclimate themselves to receiving constructive feedback.

The authors also recommend that leadership training include how to provide negative feedback effectively and how to deal with the possible consequences. Lastly, the authors suggest that highly empathic leaders consider what point in the workday to deliver negative feedback. If they deliver feedback later in the day, they can minimize harmful disruptions to their own performance. 


Simon, L.S., Rosen, C.C., Gajendran, R.S., Ozgen, S., and Corwin, E.S. (2021). Pain or gain. Understanding how trait empathy impacts leader effectiveness following the provision of negative feedback. Journal of Applied Psychology. Advance online publication.