When is Negative Feedback Too Negative?

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Last week I went out to dinner with my two teen-age daughters, who are now 18 and 15. The older one was telling me how she had confronted a friend about an annoying behavior: the tendency towards a know-it-all show-offiness in almost every conversation. Apparently it was not just my daughter who was irritated by this particular girl. A much wider circle of friends -- the whole school, practically -- recoiled from this competitive, one-upping attitude. They talked about her behind her back. The girl was developing a very poor reputation, and my good-hearted daughter felt compelled to kindly redirect her before it had gone beyond repair. "So how’d it go?" I asked, about the intervention. "Not very good." She replied. "I tried to explain in a nice way how obnoxious she came across to people, but she just got mad and cried. And then she stayed home from school today. She’s so dramatic." "Mmmh." I said, spinning my soup with a spoon. "Some people don’t handle criticism very well." But she better start listening, I thought, if she wants to have any hope of success with a job, friends or family later in life. I went on to tell my daughter about my company, which is in the midst of its annual "Peer Review Assessments," a key aspect of our performance review process. Each of the salaried employees, from the executives on down, are ranked and reviewed by a large number of co-workers – 75 in my case – on job performance and future potential. This is then followed up by a more objective review between employees and their bosses, with explicit discussion on areas where they are doing well, and where they need to improve. At this point, my younger daughter interjected her own thoughts on the subject. "That sucks!" she cried out in disbelief. I know what she was thinking. "How could these cruel adult working people possibly rank and rate one another, and then go and talk about it right to their face?" (This, as opposed to the high school version of peer reviews, which, although I don't pretend to know much about, is surely much, much more vicious.) "Well, it works." I said. "Everyone knows exactly where they stand, if they are doing a good job or not. Plus, it’s important that people you work with think well of you." I described one manager who had been rated very low last year. Instead of crying and staying home from work the next day, this guy decided to approach those very peers who rated him, and ask why they scored him so low. He wanted to know what he was doing wrong and how he could improve. It turned out that he received some very practical advice – small things, really – on what he could change to make a better impression in doing his job. Responsiveness, attitude, initiative, that sort of thing. This manager will now tell you that it was the best thing that had ever happened in his career. And he's doing very well now. My company’s process for facilitating honesty and integrity in job performance reviews may or may not be the best way to help people to improve in their jobs. We know that unhealthy criticism for no good reason can demoralize. But how do you point out negative behaviors if you want to develop people, to help them reach their full potential? HCB Content Editor Ann Kroeker had some excellent discussion on this subject in her personal blog post entitled, "Reward the Good and Ignore the Bad: Does it Work?" In it, she reflects on teaching students good writing skills, and asks readers if it is best to simply focus on reinforcing the positive rather than criticizing the negative.

"It’s tempting to focus on the mistakes—on what needs to be fixed—and ignore what’s working. I want to applaud what students are doing well so that they can recognize the places where they expressed themselves effectively; yet, I also want to mark errors in hopes of training students to develop good writing habits early on in the same way a piano teacher might correct posture or hand positions."

She goes on to describe several examples of positive-reinforcement techniques, where the good behavior is rewarded with a click and the negative ignored. Admittedly, the techniques started with training dolphins and dogs, and later were applied to humans. But they appear to work well in training people to use new skills. Ann muses on the possibilities:

"Could this work with writers, focusing on one skill at a time and rewarding them with the equivalent of a "click" when I spot it effectively woven into their assignment? Perhaps writing a simple "Yes!" next to the skill performed well (attempting simile or alliteration, for example), while ignoring all other problems?
It must require tremendous restraint.
But what a great atmosphere the positive approach could create. As people discover what works, they can duplicate results, perfect that skill and move to the next level.
It builds confidence that’s based on substance."

I just saw my daughter's friend again at our house this past weekend. She was quite lovely - all polite and deferring. They were laughing and chatting about music and boyfriends and college plans, as if all was well with the world again. It appears as if the friend had thought more about my daughter's advice, and decided to change her behavior. But now I am wondering about that clicker technique, if it might have worked just as well. Maybe next time. How well do you react to negative feedback? What do you think is the best way to give productive criticism?