When Negative Feedback is Positive

Here’s a case for the value of negative feedback. “If I see one more article or blog post about how you should never be ‘critical’ or ‘negative’ when giving feedback to an employee or colleague (or, for that matter, your children), I think my head will explode.” This was the opening sentence in a blog in the Harvard Business Review, written by Heidi Grant Halvorson, Ph.D., associate director for the Motivation Science Center at the Columbia University Business School.

Halvorson made a strong case for the value of negative feedback (defined as beneficial corrective actions), and I agree with much of what she wrote. However, her understanding of how to best use negative versus positive feedback to enhance learning and/or improve performance is incomplete; she partially but doesn’t fully account for the level of competency or expertise of the person receiving the feedback. This is a critical variable to consider.

Halvorson referenced research by Stacey R. Finkelstein and Ayelet Fishbach, who found that novices wanted and responded best to positive feedback, and experts sought out and responded to negative feedback. This is a finding consistent with sport psychology research on athletes.

It’s been well known for decades in sport psychology-”which is really high-performance psychology-”that beginners learn fastest with 100 percent positive feedback on the skills they are learning, while elite athletes, or experts, learn fastest with 100 percent feedback on what they can improve. It’s a continuum. On one end of the continuum are beginners, who learn fastest with 100 percent positive feedback, while experts improve the most with nearly 100 percent negative feedback.

Interestingly, when elite athletes or experts begin to learn a new skill, they will learn fastest with 100 percent positive feedback on what they are doing correctly, learning that skill even though they are a master of many other skills (which they continue to refine through negative feedback). Think of a senior corporate executive who wants to learn how to use golf in building business relationships, and she goes to her first golf lesson. If all the feedback that she receives focuses on what she’s doing wrong, she will have no idea how to swing a golf club at the end of her lesson and will leave frustrated, probably never to return. This executive is a master of many skills in her business, but a beginner at golf. She, like all of us, will learn the golf swing fastest by initially receiving feedback only on what she’s doing correctly with her swing, so that she can keep repeating what she’s doing right.

How do positive and negative feedback affect motivation and speed of improvement at different competency levels?

For the beginner. Give close to 100 percent positive feedback, and the beginner learns the fastest and is most excited and motivated.

For those who are good. To help this person go from good to great, offer a combination of positive feedback, to reinforce what the person is doing correctly, and negative feedback, to point out how the person can get better. Both are stated from a positive perspective of helping the other person. You know you have the right amounts of positive and negative feedback when the person you give the feedback to is grateful for it and motivated to improve.

For the expert. They want to know how to improve, give them mostly negative feedback. In 26 years of coaching clients, I’ve had two clients say to me, “I want you to help me find every block in my conscious and subconscious minds that might be limiting my success and help me resolve it.” These were both masters in their fields; one was an extraordinary entrepreneur and the other a master sales professional.

What do you think happens when you give 100 percent positive feedback to an expert, such as an elite athlete? This astounded me when I learned it. If you give an elite athlete 100 percent positive feedback, that athlete’s performance tends to get worse.

Assuming that these concepts generalize to fields outside of sport, and in my experience, they do, the amount of positive versus corrective feedback will vary not only on the general level of competency the individuals have in their work, but also on the specific skill being developed.

When I mentally coach Olympic or professional athletes, or successful entrepreneurs and executives, they’re actually happy when they can identify something they can improve.

Do you love learning how you can improve? Consider seeking out opportunities to unblock your success and evolve as a person and as a professional. This is what high performers do.

For 26 years, Dr. TC North has been a high-performance executive coach and speaker who accelerates individuals and organizations in attaining their visions and dreams. He has also mentally coached a professional sports team, Olympic teams and numerous elite, world-class athletes. He’s a professional speaker on the topics “Fearless Leaders” and “Blast Through Fear.” Dr. North’s work has been featured on TV and radio and in business and scientific journals. To learn more, visit www.TCNorth.com, or contact him at [email protected].