Most managers only like giving good feedback. But if you really want to break through to your employees and build a culture that lasts, it’s time to go negative.
By Angela Lane and Sergey Gorbatov
“Can I give you some feedback?” is one of the most loaded questions in our language. Is it a threat? An offer? Or simply someone doing their job?
Feedback has a mixed reputation among leaders, HR professionals, and even academics. That’s especially true for negative feedback, which activates the threat-related neural regions of your brain (the bilateral amygdala and dorsal anterior cingulate cortex), and may impede your ability to respond rationally.
This makes feedback emotional—and emotions are hard to tackle. In an effort to avoid the messy and emotional, then, some seek refuge in the more appealing parts of positive psychology.
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In this movement, you focus on what works well and grow from there. Those who adhere to this approach say it doesn’t make sense to focus on your weaknesses, just your strengths. That’s great news for most managers, who are simply more comfortable with handing out praise, as it makes their employees (and themselves) feel good.
Managers and their reports may have to experience one uncomfortable hour of performance discussion at the end of the year—an inevitable average rating (or worse) that contradicts all the positive feedback delivered throughout the year.
And don’t get us started on the excuses bosses use: “We have to differentiate.” “I can’t afford to give everyone a high rating.” “It isn’t me … it’s my boss.”
We’ve heard them all.
The lack of honesty isn’t the real problem here. It is, in fact, much more serious than that. Consider the following points:
1. Good news makes you feel good. But only hearing good news can be detrimental to your career. It’s feedback on negative traits and weakest areas that’s most effective.
2. You can’t intentionally strive to overcome a problem you don’t know you have. Without awareness, deliberate development doesn’t occur, and performance can’t improve. Worse yet, you practice, reinforce, and make the poor performance a habit.
3. Perhaps the biggest problem of the positive feedback approach is the long-term harm it can do. Giving only positive feedback makes people immune to negative feedback in the long term. An experimental study of strategic decision-makers shows that resting on the laurels of past successes and consistently getting only positive feedback actually impedes people from listening to negative feedback in the future, when it’s needed to correct a faulty course of action.
The misinterpretation of what positive psychology is truly about is irresponsible, yet widespread.
The “father” of positive psychology, Martin Seligman, never called for focusing on strengths exclusively. His position was that “positive psychology calls for as much focus on strength as on weakness, as much interest in building the best things in life as in repairing the worst”.
The answer, instead, is balance.
Everything in Moderation
Rob Kaiser, an advocate of a balanced and flexible approach to leadership, likens the managerial behavior of moderation to the children’s tale of Goldilocks, who was tasting porridge that was either too hot or too cold until she found the plate that was “just right”.
The balance between positive and negative should be just right, whatever that means for a specific situation. There are several aspects to consider in determining what “just right” looks like.
Can the person improve? Will giving negative feedback make a difference? If something is beyond the individual’s reach, giving negative feedback on that issue will only produce more frustration. This is one of the cases when it’s best to let it go and focus on the next best thing.
Where is the person on the learning curve? Psychological research shows that negative emotions produce a motivation to learn. If you get an A on a test, you just smile and move on. If you get an F, you want to learn how you screwed up.
One study shows that a shift takes place when people are on the path to expertise. Human performance is highly contextual. In different circumstances, we may need various types of information about how we go about reaching our goals.
Novices seek and need positive feedback because it keeps them working at something they’re not very good at. When you’re a novice, a word of reinforcement about what you’re doing right can go a long way.
But there’s a tipping point. As someone becomes an expert, they deliberately seek out negative feedback, so they know how to keep improving now that their mistakes are fewer and subtler. When you know that polishing your weak areas will make you even better, you start to ask, “How can I be even better at this?”.
Does the person want the feedback? Research shows poor performers and people new to their roles and organization are likely to be seeking feedback on what they’re doing wrong. Those who are skilled at impression management (i.e., they care a lot about their personal brand) won’t seek feedback from those in power. People with high self-esteem are less likely to avoid negative feedback. And so on.
Knowing your people—really knowing them—pays off. Finding the right message to the right person in the right situation can yield dramatic improvement in performance. But when in doubt, give the feedback. Even though managers tend to dislike giving it, employees do want to hear it.
How is the person likely to respond? Motivation improves when positive feedback is given to people with a promotion focus (those who want to achieve and take risks—sensitive to rewards) and negative feedback is given to people with a prevention focus (those who want to avoid trouble and are generally cautious—sensitive to punishment).
The abstract of an article on radical candor (nicely defined by the authors as “a proactive and compassionate engagement in an unpleasant and direct feedback process”) starts unequivocally and strongly in support for moving away from focusing only on the positive. The authors say:
“Negative feedback has been repeatedly identified as beneficial for organizational learning, adaptability, and performance. Despite having these advantages, most organizations still do not use negative feedback to its full potential, as they fail to spread it correctly among their members. The application of negative feedback, therefore, faces several issues like misuse or process avoidance that are mostly driven by psychological factors.”
For peak performance, you need balance. You need both.
In one experiment, participants had to enter various dollar amounts from bank checks into a computer application. During the task, they received positive or negative feedback on how they were doing, depending on their group. The participants who received supportive feedback improved their performance by 21 percent in the subsequent rounds of the experiment. And those who received critically phrased feedback … also improved their performance by 21 percent!
A good manager knows how to balance positive and negative messages. Understanding the specific situation at a given point in time and delivering feedback directly relevant to that context can be extremely powerful.
Positive feedback will make the recipient feel better, reinforce good behavior, and build confidence. But negative feedback points out improvement opportunities and ways to build competence—and employees remember it longer.
It’s Time to Embrace Tough Love
If you want something to really sink in, try to wrap it into a you-don’t-do-it-well form. As Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic demonstrated in his most recent book, confidence without competence will likely lead to derailment.
Now, negative feedback shouldn’t be destructive. But when a tough message about performance needs to be delivered, focus on what matters most. Be credible, focused, and fair. Sugar-coating may, quite frankly, backfire.
One consultancy did a study on employee engagement across various companies and discovered that in 42 percent of organizations, low performers were more engaged than high and middle performers. A manager’s inability to give feedback in a way that holds employees accountable for their performance, or that effectively delivers the message that their work outcome is poor, will lead to talent drain and drop in productivity overall.
Finally, a 2016 literature review on feedback in Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior summarized the existing evidence that seeking negative feedback about oneself leads to improved performance outcomes, while seeking positive feedback does nothing:
… self-focused negative feedback improves performance because it yields cues that support learning and because it signals to the supervisor that the employee cares about and is striving for improvement. […] A tendency to seek positive feedback about the self, in contrast, did not impact performance, […as] positive self-feedback does not identify deficiencies and also may signal a sense of self-contentment or an underlying insecurity.
A thorough meta-analytical study showed that frequent feedback, irrespective of whether it’s positive or negative, makes people seek even more feedback. Moreover, negative feedback has a stronger effect on the increase in feedback seeking, as poor performers are more incentivized to ask for advice to improve, despite potential ego and image costs.
This is culture building in action: Managers’ actions of giving feedback to their employees produce a feedback seeking effect, which leads to a virtuous cycle, with both types of behavior reinforcing each other. So instead of fighting over whether feedback should be positive or negative, shouldn’t we focus on the simple fact of giving feedback as such? The science agrees.
Don’t misunderstand us: We don’t advocate for swinging the pendulum toward solely negative feedback. There’s a lot of information out there, and it’s up to you to check its veracity. It’s easy to get swayed by titles like, “Negative Feedback Rarely Leads to Improvement.” But if you read that article, you’ll see the author talks more about how employees feel and behave to avoid criticism from peers.
So be critical and versed in the (much more extensive and more credible) research that counter-argues as relationships between friends and colleagues deepen, the amount of negative feedback actually increases, while the amount of positive feedback stays the same.
Aristotle said that to avoid criticism, one should say nothing, do nothing, and be nothing. For those with a desire to perform and grow, negative feedback is the best career lubricant.
Angela Lane and Sergey Gorbatov work and write about the complex science of human performance and are coauthors of Fair Talk: Three Steps to Powerful Feedback. Leveraging Fortune 500 experience gained across four continents, they equip leaders with practical tools for success. This article represents the authors’ personal opinions and not those of their employers or affiliated organizations.
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