Feedback: Negative, Positive or Just Right?

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    Some of us are really good at giving positive feedback. Others are really good at giving negative feedback. Not many seem skilled in providing both, what I call balanced feedback. Occasionally a client will tell me, “just tell it like it is. Be brutally honest.” Or, “you are just being nice.” This makes me wonder if my feedback is too polite, or too subtle, even though I try to give it honestly and in a balanced fashion. Why? Let’s take a look at what can happen when you give feedback, either too positive or too negative.

    Too little positive feedback.

    While working recently with a manager, I noticed that he tended to give mostly negative feedback, and very little positive. This manager stated that he had been taught that giving negative feedback would be more motivational. He also thought positive feedback seemed “too soft” and unnecessary. As he added: “Why should we praise people for just doing their jobs?”

    When most or all feedback is negative, people know what you don’t like, but they often have to guess at what you do like or want from them. They may feel overwhelmed and discouraged by the criticism, and they may take it personally. They don’t ready minds, and so are often confused about what you really want. They may lose confidence, since everything they do seems wrong. In addition, if the only time they hear from you is when you have a complaint, they may soon begin to feel defensive, or try to avoid interactions with you.

    That said, negative feedback has its place. To be effective it needs to be specific and non-judgmental. Compare these two comments on a written report:

    1. “I can’t believe you turned in such shoddy work. Don’t you know any better?”

    2. “One of your conclusions was faulty and you had 3 typos on the report.”

    The first comment is shaming and demotivating. I feel bad, but I don’t know what I should do differently. The second comment seems deliberately unemotional, so it takes the shame out of it. It also gives me specific information about what I can do to improve.

    Too much positive feedback. If you are a big believer in positive feedback, or if you don’t want to hurt people’s feelings, you may be relying too much on positive feedback and fail to deliver the bad news. We have all heard about employees who received glowing performance reviews right up to the day they were let go for “performance issues.” Obviously, there were problems that should have been addressed. If all you give is positive feedback, people can have an unrealistically high view of their worth and performance levels. Because they receive unbalanced feedback, they can have confidence above and beyond their actual performance levels.

    Positive reinforcement certainly has its place, and to be effective it also needs to be specific and clear. Consider these two examples:

    1. “Good job. Keep it up.”

    2. “Your report was clear, your conclusions were on target, and the writing was crisp and accurate.”

    The first comment may make me feel good, but I am not really sure what was right about my work. It might make me feel bad because you didn’t even take time to notice what I did. In other words, the easy compliment seems canned and can come across as insincere. The second comment is all positive, but it tells me what you valued, and clearly shows you read my report.

    Balanced feedback. Balanced feedback provides feedback on what is being done well as well as what could be improved. The positive feedback builds confidence and reinforces the “good” behavior you want to see more of. It clarifies expectations. It feels good. The negative feedback is given factually and preferably with suggestions for improvement.

    Consider this example of balanced feedback:

    1. “Your report was clear, your conclusions were on target, and the writing was crisp and accurate. There were several typos, and for that I suggest more careful proofing. And one of your conclusions wasn’t clear to me. Let’s talk it over this afternoon and compare notes. Overall, great job!”

    If you lead, coach or develop people, I suggest aiming for balanced feedback that builds confidence, shows the direction you want the performance to take, and highlights areas for improvement in a clear, non-punishing way. At the same time, note that people react differently. Some crave the honest feedback, and some crave the “feel good” aspects of positive feedback. Some remember and take to heart any criticism, and some live for it. So adjust accordingly, but always strive to be honest, sincere and matter-of-fact.

    By being honest and straightforward, and by offering balanced feedback, the people you influence can build skills and confidence at the same time.