The Truth About Negative Feedback

New research shows that negative feedback is just as important as praise — if not more so — in helping people and organizations succeed.
Negative feedback

You don’t think you socialize too much at work, but every manager you’ve ever had would disagree. Too bad they never told you.

If you manage people, it’s a safe bet that giving them feedback on their performance isn’t your favorite part of the job. But as legendary Green Bay Packers football coach Vince Lombardi once said, “To achieve success, whatever job we have, we must pay a price.”

Effective leaders know that providing regular feedback — positive and negative — is one of their best tools for success. And giving feedback infrequently — or worse, not at all — comes with a price. According to a study of more than 80 U.S.-based executives, not giving poor performers the feedback they need costs organizations thousands of dollars per day.

Unfortunately, recent reports have confused the issue by suggesting positive feedback has a bigger impact on performance improvement than constructive criticism.

The Research

To shed more light on the feedback question, research and advisory firm Center for Creative Leadership conducted a survey of 235 leaders from organizations around the world. Participants were asked about the total performance feedback they gave and received in the previous three months.

The goal was to understand how feedback is being handled in today’s workplaces, to identify gaps in current feedback practices and develop benchmarks to help leaders understand its value.

In developing the survey, CCL used four feedback categories as defined by researchers at the University of Akron:

  • Positive Process: Your boss says you’re performing well on a task or project that’s still underway.
  • Negative Process: You need to make changes in how you’re handling ongoing work.
  • Positive Outcome: The task or project is complete, and you’re praised for a job well done.
  • Negative Outcome: In the end, your performance was not up to par.

What type of feedback did managers report wanting to receive?

  • Positive: Respondents to the survey said they got about the same amount of positive feedback related to ongoing work (33 percent) as they wanted (32 percent). Their bosses gave them more positive feedback about completed work (44 percent) than they preferred (33 percent).
  • Negative: The managers surveyed wanted more negative feedback during a task or project (12 percent received; 18 percent preferred) and after it was completed (11 percent received; 17 percent preferred).

What It Means

  • Don’t wait for performance reviews to provide constructive feedback.

It’s clear that many employees appreciate honest feedback, even when it is hard to hear. They understand it will help them gain self-awareness and move ahead in their careers. In fact, a separate study of college students at the University of Akron found that negative process feedback provides the strongest motivation for improvement. It only makes sense; people want to know how they can improve before their work before it’s too late.

Without constructive feedback, poor performers will continue to be a drain on any organization — and they’ll likely get worse. They could also miss out on opportunities throughout their working lives if they don’t know their strengths and weaknesses.

And what about top performers? They need regular feedback as well; they’ll eventually leave the organization if they don’t get it.

  • A boss’ ability to deliver constructive feedback improves co-workers’ perceptions of them.

People who rated their managers as ineffective received less weekly or daily feedback (5 percent daily and about 20 percent weekly) than those who rated their bosses as highly effective (9 percent daily and 46 percent weekly). Furthermore, employees who received the most positive process feedback were more likely to rate their bosses as highly effective.

CCL’s newest research of more than 300 managers also has shown that leaders who provided high-quality negative feedback (according to their direct reports) on a daily basis were also viewed as more promotable by their bosses. In short, leaders who decide to give high-quality negative feedback on a regular basis will receive more advancement opportunities throughout their careers.

What do these findings mean for today’s leaders? When it comes to building a culture where employees feel comfortable asking for and receiving feedback, the leaders set the tone. By making timely and constructive feedback a priority, managers at any business or organization can go a long way in building a well-functioning team.

Stephen Young is a senior research scientist, research and evaluation, at the Center for Creative Leadership, a research and advisory firm. To comment, email editor@talenteconomy.io.