The benefits of negative feedback

feedbackOften asked the question of when and how to provide feedback to our colleagues or employees. After all, you probably don’t relish the thought of having to tell someone else what they are doing wrong , at minimum, it’s a little embarrassing for everyone involved.

But avoiding negative feedback is both wrong-headed and dangerous. Wrong-headed because, when delivered the right way, at the right time, criticism is in fact highly motivating. Dangerous because without awareness of the mistakes he or she is making, no one can possibly improve. Staying « positive » when doling out feedback will only get you so far.

Thankfully, brilliant new research light on the seemingly paradoxical nature of feedback, by making it clear why, when, and for whom negative feedback is appropriate. It’s important to begin by understanding the function that positive and negative feedback serve. Positive feedback increases commitment to the work you do, by enhancing both your experience and your confidence. Negative feedback on the other hand, is informative, it tells you where you need to spend your effort, and offers insight into how you might improve.

Given these two different functions, positive and negative feedback should be more effective for different people at different times. For instance, when you don’t really know what you are doing, positive feedback helps you to stay optimistic and feel more at ease with the challenges you are facing , something novices tend to need. But when you are an expert, and you already more or less know what you are doing, it’s negative feedback that can help you do what it takes to get to the top of your game.

Some studies show that people who are experienced in a given domain, people who already have developed some knowledge and skills, don’t actually live in fear of negative feedback. If anything, they seek it out. Intuitively they realize that negative feedback offers the key to getting ahead, while positive feedback merely tells them what they already know.

Just to be clear, I’m not suggesting that you never tell the rookie about his mistakes, or that you never praise the seasoned professional for her outstanding work. And of course negative feedback should always be accompanied by good advice, and given with tact.

But I am suggesting that piling on praise is a more effective motivator for the rookie than the pro. And I’m saying, point blank, that you shouldn’t worry so much when it comes to pointing out mistakes to someone experienced. Negative feedback won’t crush their confidence, but it just might give them the information they need to take their performance to the next level.

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