The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA


February 5, 2014

Negative feedback and why we hate it

I’m a big fan of positive feedback. That’s why I filter my email so I only see messages that include phrases like “great job,“ “really enjoyed that“ and “you’re as talented as you are handsome.“

Unfortunately, negative feedback - or “constructive criticism,“ as it’s sneakily described - can’t be entirely avoided, particularly during an annual performance review, an event that generally ranks right below “submerged into tub of disoriented swordfish“ on the things-we-don’t-like scale.

Many of us talk a good game about wanting to identify our faults so we can fix them and become better people. But getting both praise and criticism in one annual dollop can be problematic because the negative - even if it’s minor and intended to be constructive - can overwhelm the positive.

In a recent study published in the Journal of Personnel Psychology, researchers examined how different employees react to performance appraisals. The study’s authors expected to find that, while most workers don’t like negative feedback, those who are “learning oriented“ and driven by a desire to perform better would at least value criticism as a guide to improvement.

Not so much.

The study found that, to varying degrees, criticism dulled what employees took away from their appraisals, raising questions about the efficacy of the traditional workplace system for gauging performance.

“Learning-oriented people really are in it to learn and improve themselves, so they really should just value feedback all the time, and it shouldn’t matter if it’s negative or positive,“ said Satoris Culbertson, an assistant professor of management at Kansas State University and co-author of the study. “Even if it wasn’t seen as, ’Yay! It’s a great thing!’ we wouldn’t think negative feedback would be seen as bad for the learning oriented. But it is. If nobody is going to be happy getting negative feedback, you have to be careful about what people will perceive as negative.“

Does this mean managers should never criticize their workers? No, certainly not, but it does put another nail in the coffin of the traditional annual review.

“People do need performance reviews. They do need feedback in order to get better,“ said Leerom Segal, president and CEO of the digital marketing agency Klick Health. “But when you wait an entire year, you’re creating a bias for what has happened in the last few months. That’s not fair, and you don’t give people the opportunities they need to course-correct or get the coaching they need to change and get better.“

Segal co-authored a book called “The Decoded Company,“ which will be published later this month. The book looks at how companies can generate and use internal data to better know and manage their workforces. At Klick, managers meet once a week with their employees for “check-ins,“ informal huddles that not only give workers more immediate feedback but also provide information managers can use.

“Over time, the really interesting thing you see from these conversations is the pattern,“ Segal said. “As things change with different customers (the employee is working with), you can really see where your instruction is setting in. And if there are certain behaviors a manager is taking with a member of the team that don’t seem to be working, you can start to provide different approaches.“

Segal also emphasizes the need for positive and negative balance, even in weekly performance checkups. He said managers can gather considerable information just from a company’s existing technology - looking at which clients the employee is most in contact with; if the company has an online system that workers can chat on, monitoring that to see if people are being congratulated for accomplishments. (The book stresses the need for companies to be transparent about what kind of internal data gets monitored and why. Segal isn’t proposing an NSA-style approach.)

“I have complete situational awareness when I go into a one-on-one,“ Segal said. “’Don’t forget to thank Janet. She got a kudo from the team and a kudo from a client. She also had this successful project. And, by the way, it’s her birthday next week.’ Having those reminders at the right time just allows you to be a more engaged and more aware leader. As a result, your team becomes more engaged and more aware.“

There’s no way every company is going to swing once-a-week meetings with employees, but this excerpt from the book gets to the heart of why more frequent performance evaluations makes sense: “Having regular dialogue between managers and employees built in makes it a part of their weekly routine and removes the stress that often comes with these types of conversations, linked as they are to bonuses and compensation. . They provide employees with regular, quantifiable feedback that is balanced and constructive.“

Culbertson said, rather than looking at a system for giving annual performance reviews, companies should focus on a “performance management system“ that suits their organization and workforce.

“You can’t have a cookie-cutter approach for each place,“ she said. “It really does differ, and there’s no magic bullet. There are ways to fix (performance review systems) and make them work, and it is all about tailoring them to the needs of the organization and the needs of the people.“

It’s all about delivering feedback, good and bad, in a way people won’t tune out.

In my case, that would be a weekly meeting that begins with, “You’re doing a great job with your handsomeness, Rex.“ After that, I’m all ears.

Rex Huppke writes for the Chicago Tribune. Send him questions by email at or on Twitter RexWorksHere.


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