Feedback. We all want it and perhaps those in the Millennial generation crave it more than most. But is anything less than positive feedback really appreciated and effective at bringing out our best performance?
Years ago I wrote a blog post titled Six Tips to Successfully Deliver Employee Feedback where I suggested “. . . if we are doing something not so well, we want to know what this is and especially how to correct it. Don’t underestimate a person’s level of resilience because such feedback loops are vital to their continued growth.”
But in the current issue of the Harvard Business Review, an article titled Negative Feedback Rarely Leads to Improvement by Paul Green, a doctoral candidate at Harvard Business School, found that critical feedback from coworkers drove employees to adjust their roles to be around people who would provide more positive reviews. That is, when feedback was what they term “disconfirming,” the test subjects would seek others to provide “confirming feedback.”
Further, he found that when the relationship was discretionary—people didn’t have to work together—the person getting the negative feedback would just move away from that person or group. When the employees had to work together, however, the recipient of the negative feedback would look to connect with other people in the company in what they termed “shopping for confirmation.”
Negative feedback doesn’t provide the sustenance we need to enable us to maintain a positive view of ourselves, according to Green.
“The idea behind performance appraisals, and feedback in general, is that to grow and improve, we must have a light shined on the things we can’t see about ourselves,” says Green. “There’s an assumption that what motivates people to improve is the realization that they’re not as good as they think they are. But in fact, it just makes them go find people who will not shine that light on them. It may not be having the intended effect at all.”
What it comes down to is whether when receiving this critical feedback, the employee feels valued or not. Delivering the feedback sandwich of “here’s what you do well, here’s what you do not so well and keep up the good work” isn’t necessarily helpful. Instead, it should be about ensuring that employees first and foremost feel secure knowing that they provide value and their contributions are generally positive. Then the employee is able to hear and respond appropriately to the critical information.
In my work as a consultant and leadership coach, I find so often it is not the salary, job title, or other external expressions of worth, but whether or not the person feels they are valued by their manager, by their peers and by the company as a whole. And, ironically, conveying this appreciation of value to an employee costs the company nothing.
In some ways, this seems to further the argument that we should focus on maximizing strengths rather than minimizing weaknesses. But I think that would be short-sighted and reduce our ability to continue to grow and learn as we advance in our careers.
Regularly acknowledging and emphasizing the value employees provide means they may be much more open to hearing critical feedback. They may then be able to separate their job performance from who they are as individuals. Then they will be able to act on the feedback with a foundation of security that enables the courage to make necessary changes.