Negative vs Positive Feedback: Which Is Right?
September 6, 2016
This week I heard from a talent who suddenly quit their job. They are an experienced major market talent, who has been doing morning radio successfully, for a long time. They are passionate and committed. They have won awards and challenged the status quo of morning radio. They are a talent who has always been receptive to feedback and willing to collaborate with others to find success. Why did they quit? The answer is their manager. More importantly, the reason they quit was because of how their managers approach giving feedback. That's a sad outcome for the talent, for the manager, for the station and ultimately for the industry.
Let me take this story back a year or two. When the new manager joined the station, his first interaction he had with the morning show was to assert his control. During that first conversation the manager proclaimed with pride 'I'm a perfectionist, so you'll never achieve a 10/10 show with me.' I don't mean to imply that the manager's intentions were sinister or overtly authoritarian because I don't know if that is true. I suspect that the manager's intentions were to deliver results for the company and their approach was to focus on fixing problems. This manager - like many - favored negative feedback over positive. After a couple of years receiving nothing but negative comments about his performance, the talent gave up hope and decided to get out. That's devastating.
This situation isn't isolated. It's not uncommon for managers to focus on providing only negative feedback. It's easier to point out what isn't working than it is to finding something good to build upon. It takes more skill to analyze performance and find the possibilities. Maybe this fascination with criticism and pointing out the bad, comes from a manager's lack of experience or their own insecurities; whatever their motivation it often leads to an unproductive and an emotionally draining working relationship.
So,what's the difference between negative and positive feedback? Negative feedback is the process of pointing out what someone is doing inadequately and telling them to change it. Whereas positive feedback is the process of building upon a person's strengths. Positive feedback is focused on highlighting what you're doing well and praising that good behavior/action. The theory of positive feedback is that if you tell someone what they are doing well, that person will likely repeat the behavior - and improve upon through repetition - to secure continued approval.
There is a lot of contradictory literature and scientific studies about the best type of feedback. Some people would argue positive feedback leads to greater results, and others would argue the benefits of negative feedback. Science says that both approaches have merit.
Researchers have been able to successfully argue that positive feedback leads to higher levels of motivation. Positivity increases our self belief and with that increased self belief we start to imagine actualizing our goals which only serves to further amplify our motivation and confidence. We believe that we can achieve therefore we are more likely to keep trying to achieve. Positivity acts as rocket fuel, driving us toward our goals.
There are other researchers who would argue that it is negative feedback that actually leads to increased motivation. These researchers believe when you positively reinforce the achievements of others, the individual believes they are already putting in sufficient effort to achieve their long term goal and therefore don't believe there is a need to increase their effort. Negative feedback however focuses on what still needs to be done and suggests that more effort and hard work is needed if you are to have a chance of achieving your goal. That leads to more motivation.
It is my belief that positive feedback is the best approach for you to take or at least it is the approach to favor the most when offering feedback. Positive feedback encourages us to repeat behaviors and actions. With positive feedback we put emphasis on strengths and building upon them. Not on fixing our weaknesses. We are all receptive to feedback that doesn't cause us to doubt ourselves and develop insecurities. Positivity keeps our minds open and focused on the future and what needs to be done, while negativity leads to us feeling bad about ourselves and our abilities. When we receive constant negative feedback, we become fixated as we see the feedback as a threat; a threat to our future security. We then put ourselves under immense pressure to perform and every time we receive more negative feedback we increase the pressure. Before long we're riddled with anxiety and unhappiness. Who can perform like that?
I accept that there is a danger to simply taking a 100% positive approach to feedback. Piling on the praise can signal to someone that they have made sufficient progress and can now stop making the effort. That can lead to a sense of 'what I am doing today is enough'. We all know that what we are doing today isn't going to be enough tomorrow. So, as a manager you need to be able to dispense some negative feedback, sometimes. The optimum word there is sometimes. When communicated properly, negative feedback can encourage us to try harder. It can encourage us to recommit and challenge us to dig deeper. A manager can only offer negative feedback if they have established a relationship of trust with the person they are offering the feedback to. When there is trust, the negative feedback is received knowing the intention is to help improve performance.
Focusing purely on either positive or negative feedback is not going to elevate an individual to their fullest potential. You should focus on offering up positive feedback and injecting the occasional negative feedback to optimize the chance of helping improve someone's performance and guiding them to success.
It is imperative that managers always remember the importance of feedback on performance. The feedback that someone is given often powerfully influences their ability to succeed.