EWS Blog

Jan 03, 2018

How to Write a Negative Email Without Burning Bridges

Two sets of hands looking at feedback on a tablet.
Sometimes we just have to send a negative email. It could be because an employee failed to perform a task correctly, a contractor didn’t live up to expectations, a coworker didn’t finish a project, or any number of other reasons. It’s not very pleasant, but it’s inevitable that at some point we’ll have to let someone know they did something wrong so we can try to fix it.

The tricky part here is to not come off as too mean or off-putting. You may be sending negative feedback, but it doesn’t have to be in the form of an angry email. Nobody really likes to be criticized, and they certainly don’t like to feel stupid or like they’re being belittled, so when you’re giving feedback you need to try to keep as positive an attitude as possible.

Sure, the person you’re emailing did something wrong, but he or she might not even realize it. If your emails read like an attack, then your readers might think you have a low opinion of them, and that could cause them to develop a low opinion of you in return.

To avoid a potentially disastrous misunderstanding, make sure you put some real thought into your feedback, and try following these steps to soften the blow from your criticisms.  

Step 1 - Open with a Kind Statement

Don’t dive right in to the criticisms. After your initial greeting, say something warm and friendly to ease into the conversation, and show that you view your reader as more than just the mistake he or she has made. It’s a great way to start  an email off on the right foot, and it can be even more disarming when you’re about to get into a less pleasant conversation.

A simple question like “How are you feeling today?” or “Did you have a nice weekend?” expresses an interest in your reader, and demonstrates that you care for him or her as a person. If you don’t really want to get bogged down with idle banter, you could nix the questions and say “I hope you’re feeling well” or “I hope you had a great weekend!” The effect is the same, but it may eliminate a part of the conversation you don’t really want to get too invested in.

Step 2 - Say Something Positive or Encouraging

You’ve said something nice to start the email, now try to say something positive or encouraging about the work you’re soon going to criticize. Most of your feedback in this email could be negative, but did your reader do anything right? Let him or her know about it, and express that you’re happy about this aspect of their work.

Saying something like “Thanks for finishing the report, Jim. I really like the way you color coded our key concerns” encourages the reader’s positive behavior, and softens the blow of the negative feedback you’re about to give.

Don’t try too hard to say something positive, though. If Jim really didn’t do anything right then you don’t want to encourage the least bad qualities of his work simply because he did other things worse.

Step 3 - Give Your Negative Feedback

You were kind, you were encouraging, and you led off with plenty of positivity. Now it’s time to stop playing “good cop” and get to the heart of what’s troubling you. Explain to your reader exactly what he or she did wrong, and why it’s a problem. You want to correct the issue and prevent similar mistakes from happening in the future, so make sure your reader understands where he or she messed up. That is, afterall, why you’re writing this email in the first place.

Just because you’re being critical, however, don’t think you have to be mean. You can correct errors without belittling your reader, and you can even be encouraging in the process. Instead of saying “Jim, your report is full of spelling errors and that’s unacceptable!” you could say something along the lines of “Jim, we can’t send this report to our investors with all these spelling errors. What do you think about hiring an editor to help us out?”

This lets Jim know what he did wrong, but also provides a possible solution in the same paragraph, demonstrating that while Jim did screw up the problem can still be fixed. Jim might like the idea of bringing on an editor, or he might think he can handle the corrections himself; either way you’re giving him a chance to evaluate what he did wrong and consider how to fix it. Though the quality of Jim’s work is the problem, you’ve now made him part of the solution, giving him some subtle encouragement even as you dole out the negative feedback.

Step 4) Ask If Your Email Made Sense

You want to ensure your reader understood everything you have said, otherwise you might just be having the same conversation again the next time your reader screws up.

Ending your email with a sentence like “Thanks for your time, Jim; please let me know if you have any questions or concerns” reinforces the idea that you appreciate Jim’s work, and makes the whole process feel more collaborative. Sure, Jim might be the one who screwed up in the first place, but by asking if he has any concerns you’ve shown that you still value his input. Helping your reader to feel valuable will help him or her keep a positive attitude, which can then positively affect future work.

Not everyone takes criticism very well, but you can prevent a bad situation from getting worse by putting a positive spin on negative feedback. Being polite and encouraging is a surefire way to keep your reader upbeat, so give it a try.