Why negative feedback can be a good thing

What businesses have to learn from the legacy of the Olympics has been the subject of two events I’ve attended this week.  The euphoria of London 2012 may have died down – but there is still a great deal of interest in just how British sport managed to pull off such an amazing transformation and whether companies could use some of the same techniques to raise their own performance.

What was evident from both sessions was that feedback played a critical role in propelling our athletes onto the podium.  Contrary to what you might expect, it wasn’t always positive feedback that got them there.

Sporting professionals are used to having every aspect of their performance put under the microscope.  Their coaches frequently pull them up on the tiniest aspect of technique and the slightest dip in motivation.  Often, it is this highly detailed examination of what they’re not getting quite right that helps them take those vital seconds off their performance and get ahead of the game.

Now critical or negative feedback is not something we are entirely comfortable with in the business world.  Managers often shy away from picking people up on their performance for fear it will cause bad feeling or may even upset people.

Recent research out of Columbia and Chicago Universities, however, suggests there are many scenarios where negative feedback may not just be appropriate, but also highly motivating.

In an article in Harvard Business Review, Columbia University motivation expert Heidi Grant Halvorson points out that yes, of course, positive feedback is important.  The danger of only ever focusing on the positive, however, is that if people’s mistakes are not pointed out to them, they will never get any better.

Grant Halvorson suggests it’s important for managers to understand the different roles that positive and negative feedback can play.  Positive feedback (here’s what you did really well) increases commitment to the work people are doing and builds their confidence.  Negative feedback (here’s where you are going wrong) on the other hand, is informative.  It tells people where they need to focus their efforts and offers insights into how they might improve.

What this means in practice for managers is that they need to think carefully about when which type of feedback is most appropriate.  So if someone is working on a project where they are on unfamiliar territory or under pressure, positive feedback might help them stay upbeat and more comfortable with the challenges they are facing.  If someone is more experienced and at ease with the tasks they are carrying out however, it is the more critical feedback that will help them add that extra edge to their performance.

Now you might think that employees wouldn’t particularly welcome the prospect of their performance being picked apart in detail by their manager.  The US research suggests that in fact this isn’t always the case.  Their findings showed that while  ‘novices’ preferred feedback that focused on their strengths, more experienced people were actually hungry for the kind of feedback that focused on their mistakes and gave them a steer on how they could get better.

Grant Halvorson points out that this doesn’t mean you should never highlight an inexperienced employee’s mistakes or that you should never praise a more seasoned professional for a job well done.  And of course negative feedback should always be delivered tactfully, in private and with guidance about how to approach a task more effectively.

She is clear, however, that the research shows we should get over our reluctance to pro-actively point out mistakes to experienced people.  “Negative feedback won’t crush their confidence but it might just give them the information they need to take their performance to the next level,” she says.

What’s your view?  Do you think negative feedback has a place – and are your employees tough enough to cope with it?

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